“The Glass Rainbow,” (2010), is the eighteenth crime novel published by American author James Lee Burke in his New York Times bestselling Detective Dave Robicheaux series. Like most of the earlier books of the series, the book, a Southern noir, police procedural/mystery with touches of Southern Gothic, is set in and around New Orleans, Louisiana, more or less home country for Burke, who was born in Houston, Texas, and grew up on the Texas-Louisiana gulf coast. This novel picks up after SWAN PEAK, featuring New Iberia, Louisiana, deputy sheriff Robicheaux. It finds him back in his home country, dealing with adopted daughter Alafair's attraction to local novelist Kermit Abelard of the degenerate Abelard clan (who echo Mississippi author William Faulkner's Snopeses). Furthermore, seven young women in neighboring Jefferson Davis Parish have been brutally murdered; now the bodies of two more young women, also brutally murdered, have turned up on Robicheaux’s turf. The detective is trying to solve these sadistic killings, in which endeavor he is aided and abetted by best friend Clete Purcel. Evil here comes in many forms, from the psychotic interloper Vidor Perkins, to Herman Stanga, local pimp and crack dealer, and on to Robert Weingart, a convict turned author, whom Kermit has championed. Robicheaux had been asked to return to the sheriff’s office by his former partner, now the sheriff, the widely thought-to-be lesbian Helen Soileau. Daughter Alafair had been studying at Oregon’s Reed College, is now at Stanford Law, but she has taken time off to finish a novel on which she had been working. Alafair’s pet Tripod, the three-legged raccoon, is very much around, as is Robicheaux’s pet cat Snuggs. Robicheaux is very much married to his fourth wife Molly, a former sorta/kinda nun. And, to be sure, Purcell, Robicheaux’s impulsive former partner on the New Orleans Police Department, an overweight, heavily-drinking, brawling, heavily-scarred survivor of the city’s tough Irish Channel neighborhood, (as are the inevitable New Orleans gangsters in any work of Burke’s), is always around to help the detective. Robicheaux is of Cajun ancestry, still reliving the nightmare of his service in Vietnam. He has a drinking problem, and a tendency to violence that is exaggerated by his friend and alter-ego Purcel. This time out, Kermit Abelard is the wealthy and powerful, handsome, ruthless and greedy, well-educated son of the local land-owning, blue- blooded, prominent, former slave-holding family. This character is, as ever in Burke’s work, resident in the local mansion, always called the Big House; this time with his father Timothy. And boy, do Robicheaux and his creator Burke love to hate these guys. As is also an extremely frequent occurrence in Burke’s work, the hated rich man has a relationship with a beautiful woman with whom Robicheaux has a romantic history: but this time around it’s Carolyn Blanchet, wife and widow of Layton, a self-made rich man. There’s the usual psychotic, funny- looking bad guy killer with the funny name. And Burke continues to give us the odd grotesque character, a sure hallmark of Southern gothic literature. At more than 400 pages, GLASS RAINBOW is rather long for Burke. It’s also off to a monumentally slow start: I spent the first 200 pages muttering “Same old, same old.” As you can see, there’s a lot of familiar material in this series’ entry. Still, the mystery finally starts spinning at about page 250, if you can keep reading so long. The mystery is satisfactorily complex, and resonant. And Burke continues to write with energy, power, and, as the great 20th century Irish poet William Butler Yeats said, passionate intensity, though perhaps less here than earlier entries in the series. But enough, I think, to hook most readers, and keep them turning the pages. Perhaps, more than anything else, in Burke’s work, we’ll enjoy some of the most beautiful, knowledgeable writing ever committed to paper about the flora, fauna, geography, and human occupants of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, now so much in the news. Burke attended Southwestern Louisiana Institute; later received B. A. and M. A. degrees from the University of Missouri in 1958 and 1960 respectively. Over the years he worked as a landman for Sinclair Oil Company, a pipeliner, land surveyor, newspaper reporter, college English professor, social worker on Skid Row in Los Angeles, clerk for the Louisiana Employment Service, and instructor in the U. S. Job Corps. His work has twice been awarded an Edgar for Best Crime Novel of the Year. He has been named a Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America. At least eight of his 28 previously published novels have been New York Times bestsellers. At one point the author offers an explanation of the book’s title. Layton Blanchet has taken his wife Carolyn to a state fair in Montana. He looks around him at all the working class families enjoying themselves and says,” We’re all dust. At a moment like this, you get to look through a glass rainbow and everything becomes magical, but when all is said and done, we’re just dust.” At another, Burke quotes a four-time loser about to go away to the brutal state prison at Angola again for a good long time: “Don’t worry about it…. Everybody stacks time. Inside the fence or outside the fence, we all stack the same time.” This reminded me of a quote from a previous work of Burke’s: a guard at Angola muses that in this life, everybody chops the man’s cotton. But some people get to do it by supervising, on horseback, as the so-called gunballs do. As long as Burke can keep turning out thoughts and sentences like that, I’ll keep reading him.
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