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It’s a Mystery: “After all is said and done, we’re just dust”

By (September 1, 2010) One Comment

The Glass Rainbow

By James Lee Burke
Simon & Schuster, 2010

More than once, James Lee Burke has been anointed the virtual poet laureate of southern Louisiana. William Faulkner’s name is invoked when his prose is praised. In his Dave Robicheaux novels, he is, I think, the most articulate writer of crime fiction working today. This is why a new one is cause for celebration.

The Glass Rainbow, the 18th Robicheaux novel, finds Dave back home in New Iberia, Louisiana after his sojourn to Montana in Swan Peak (2008). Dave, Cajun to the core, a Vietnam vet, and recovering alcoholic, was once part of the New Orleans Police Department. He is currently a detective with the Iberia Parish Sheriff’s Department. He lives along the Bayou Teche in New Iberia with his fourth wife Molly, a former Catholic nun, and his adopted daughter, Alafair, who is taking a semester off from Stanford Law School to finish a novel.

Dave is on the horns of two new dilemmas: a serial sadist is torturing and killing young women in neighboring Jefferson Davis Parish and Alafair has become involved, romantically and otherwise, with Kermit Abelard, a writer who is also the son of one of the region’s most notorious robber barons, Timothy Abelard. He is a former defense contractor whom Dave sees as “a decayed vestige of the old oligarchy.” On a quasi-professional visit to the Abelard compound, Dave catches the old man on his sunporch:

Timothy Abelard was reading in his wheelchair, canted sideways to catch the sunlight on the page, his entire person bathed in the rainbow of color that shone through the stained-glass windows.

To Dave, who knows better, he looks so innocent and above reproach. It is a moment that belies the skeletons in the Abelard closets:

There are moments in the Deep South when one wonders if he has not wakened to a sunrise in the spring of 1862. And in that moment, maybe, one realizes with a guilty pang that he would not find such an event entirely unwelcome.

James Lee Burke

For it is the present that is packed with stress. As far as Dave’s concerned, Kermit, at 33, is too old for Alafair and thoroughly untrustworthy. Adding insult to injury, Kermit and his friend Robert Weingart, an ex-con turned best-selling memoirist, volunteer to help Alafair find a publisher for her book—over Dave’s strenuous objections, as he doesn’t want her beholden to the Abelards for anything.
An integral part of Dave’s investigation is his sidekick and comrade-in-arms for over 20 years, Clete Purcel:

At one time Clete had been the best cop I ever knew…. But booze and pills and his predilection for damaged women had been his undoing, and he’d been forced to blow the country on a murder beef… Insatiability seemed to have been wired into his metabolism…. His courage and his patriotism and his loyalty to his friends had no peer. I never knew a better or braver man whose most dangerous adversary lived in his own breast.

Dave struggles to fit together the pieces of the puzzle in a series of seemingly linked investigations. There appears to be some sort of land swindle connected with the deaths of the young women. Dave presciently muses that the crime was

likely not involving Gulf oil, the traditional motivator of the greedy. The money was in offshore drilling, and to my knowledge, no new refineries were being built in Louisiana.

If not oil, what? As Dave digs deeper it becomes a certainty that the Abelards are in it up to their aristocratic, bloodstained necks. And he is up against a new breed of villains, including a group of hooded “cleaners”—black ops paramilitary men hired by corporations as assassins and mercenaries to sanitize crime scenes. Add to the mix Dave and Clete’s recurring sense of vulnerability linked to their mortality—age rearing its ugly head—and you get time possibly ditching them in their endless war between depravity and decency.

Evil has many unexpected faces in The Glass Rainbow. Kermit and his ex-con friend Weingart put Alafair in grave danger. Dave’s hunt for her is all at once an exorcism of the demons of grief, loss, fear, rage and vengeance. In the end, her survival is a triumph of innocence over iniquity.

The final pages of The Glass Rainbow are nothing short of apocalyptic. They unfold like a fireworks display, one fiery explosion after another in a seemingly endless exhibition of dramatic pyrotechnics. The writing is lush, lyrical, brutal, and beautiful:

The Abelards had paneled their sunporch with stained-glass images of unicorns and satyrs and monks at prayer and knights in armor that shone like quicksilver, turning the interior of their home into a kaleidoscopic medieval tapestry. Or perhaps, better said, they had created a glass rainbow that awakened memories of goodness and childhood innocence, all of it to hide the ruination they had brought to the Caribbean-like fairyland they had inherited.

Burke has never been so eloquent. He gives us a bravura conclusion in which the violence that has always hovered around Dave’s life comes home to roost, possibly with far-reaching implications for the series. Not to be missed!

Irma Heldman is a veteran publishing executive and book reviewer with a penchant for mysteries. One of her favorite gigs was her magazine column “On the Docket” under the pseudonym O.L. Bailey.