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Book Review: The Glass Rainbow by James Lee Burke

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For 23 years, James Lee Burke has been chronicling the fractured life Dave Robicheaux has lived as a Vietnam veteran damaged by the war, as a recovering alcoholic, and as a man dedicated to providing law enforcement in the worst places in Louisiana. When Burke describes these places and the evil that dwells there, as well as the horrible things that happened in those lands when cotton was king and slavery was an institution, readers can’t help but be propelled to a different time and world. That world is dangerous and deceitful and mystifying, filled with fear and a quiet, lethal magic that seeps from the land.

The murders of young girls set Robicheaux onto a collision course with cold evil, troubled souls, and deadly secrets. This is a standard landscape for a Burke novel, but every year I sit down with the new book feels like the first time all over again. The path of the investigation invariably meanders down different paths, but each red herring and false lead discloses more of the central characters as well the motivations behind the crimes.

The Glass Rainbow has a lot of people in play from the onset. Kermit Abelard is the wealthy grandson of a patriarch known for excesses and extra-legal affairs. Clete Purcell says he can smell death on Timothy Abelard, the grandfather, and that description fits all the events that fall into play afterward. Death sits in on this table with the Abelards, and in this novel his name is Robert Weingart, an ex-convict with a murderous past and an unslaked appetite for more.

One of the best characters this time around, though, is Alafair. Dave’s daughter is now a young woman, home from college and working on her first novel. (For those of you who don’t know, Burke’s real life daughter Alafair has become a first-rate mystery/suspense writer and I encourage you to pick up her books as well. I’ve enjoyed them immensely.) Alafair takes up Dave’s investigatory instincts and shuffles herself into the case. She has become a truly awesome young woman and the relationship she has with Dave is tender and painful at the same time.

I loved how the book picks up various plot lines, straightening them out from time to time so they could be more fully appreciated. At first, I didn’t know if I liked the idea of sections being told through Alafair and Clete’s eyes, but there was no other way to do justice to the story. Burke manages it all very well, and the shifting perspective put an edge on several key scenes.

Even though this is the 18th in the series, a new reader doesn’t have to go back and read the other 17. A true fan might have a better understanding of some of the emotional complexities and payoffs in the story, but someone new to Robicheaux can enjoy all the characters, the action, and the mystery. A new reader also has the advantage of seeing Louisiana for the first time through Burke’s eyes, which is a breathtaking experience.

Simply put, old fan or new reader, you can’t afford to miss this book. And you’ll be anxiously awaiting the next one.

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About Mel Odom

  • Baritone

    I’ve been a long time fan of Burke – especially his Robicheaux series. I love the manner in which Burke makes his readers feel like they have bayou sweat running down their necks. Burke clearly loves Louisiana and New Orleans.

    Returning characters, Clete, Alafair and even Tripod, the 3 legged raccoon, are like old friends.

    There is one thing that seems perhaps too consistent in these works, though. In virtually every one of these books, the crime or crimes always lead back to the rich. Any character who wields money and/or power is intricately at the center of all the bad. True, there are always a plethora of low lifes, most of whom are in one way or another doing the bidding of some rich bastard. On the rare occasion that the rich/powerful characters are not actually at the heart of the crimes, then they are often guilty of hubris or just plain carelessness which wreaks havoc on others.

    Nevertheless, I always love to latch onto the newest Burke work (although I haven’t done so with this one as yet,) and allow myself the luxury of diving into the Big Easy and the backwaters of southern Louisiana.

    For a change of pace, if you haven’t had the pleasure, you might give Lawrence Block’s Matthew Scudder and other series of books a read. It’s rather fun bouncing to and fro between Block and Burke. Both primary characters are recovering alcoholics but living in very different milieus.

  • MT Author

    I agree with most of your points but not the last one. Burke has lots of loyal fans and they were a bit penalized in this book by lots of background and familiarity. I read this book recently and liked it a lot however it didn’t stand on the top of my list. Burke has done better work previously with Dave. It would have been better if he could start the mystery piece a bit earlier (we get a lot of familiar context till page 250 and then the mystery starts). Shorter novels also suit his stories more. My full review here.