Saturday, August 19, 2017


THE GLASS RAINBOW by James Lee Burke (Orion, 2010)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

Seven young women in Jefferson Davis Parish have been brutally murdered. While the crimes have all the telltale signs of a serial killer, the death of Bernadette Latiolais, a high school honor student, doesn't fit: she is not the kind of hapless and marginalized victim psychopaths usually prey upon. 

Detective Dave Robicheaux and his best friend, Clete Purcel, confront Herman Stanga, a notorious pimp and crack dealer whom both men despise. When Stanga turns up dead shortly after a fierce beating by Purcel, in front of numerous witnesses, the case takes a nasty turn, and Clete's career and life are hanging by threads over the abyss.

Meanwhile, Robicheaux's daughter Alafair is on leave from Stanford. Her literary pursuit has led her into the arms of Kermit Abelard, celebrated novelist and scion of a once prominent Louisiana family whose fortunes are slowly sinking into the corruption of Louisiana's subculture. Abelard's association with bestselling ex-convict author Robert Weingart, a man who uses and discards people like Kleenex, causes Robicheaux to fear that Alafair might be destroyed by the man she loves. 

There are many ways that crime writers try to grab readers' attention right from the first page.

Some drop us straight into an unnamed killer's mind as they go about their deadly deeds, others entice with high-stakes action, and yet others hang their hat on memorable lines that intrigue and/or set a tone (ala Paul Thomas's "It was entirely appropriate that Wallace Guttle, the private investigator, should have spent the last hour of his life looking at pictures of other people having sex" in the first Ihaka book, or Helen Fitzgerald's punchy first line in VIRAL: “I sucked twelve cocks in Magaluf.”).

But very few open their tales of mystery like James Lee Burke.

Known for his masterful touch for his southern settings, Burke begins The Glass Rainbow, his eighteenth novel starring Detective Dave Robicheaux, with an entire page describing a room in a Mississippi river town, complete with ventilated storm shutters "slatted with a pink glow, as soft and filtered and cool in color as the spring sunrise can be".

From there, the book evolves into an intricate tale involving a series of depraved murders, a convict-turned-celebrity writer, some old money Louisiana families with plenty of skeletons in their closets, and hired mercenaries. Septuagenarian investigator Robicheaux, now something of an ornery and battle-hardened old man (picture a slightly warmer and more connected to the world but no less tough version of Clint Eastwood's aging hero in Gran Torino), has his hands full trying to dig through the muck for the truth, while keeping his hulking sidekick Clete Purcel out of jail and protecting his enamoured daughter Alafair from two older men with murky motives.

Then there's Robicheaux's own nagging mortality.

Burke may write lyrically, bring landscapes and the natural world to fragrant life, and salt in plenty of literary, religious, and philosophical touches to his crime tales, but he also has no problem getting down and dirty in the nitty gritty too. His villains are very nasty; modern-day spins on the classic grotesques of the Southern Gothic tradition. Corruption abounds. As does menace. There's a sweltering sense of lurking evil, not just common badness or uncaring self-interest.

One aspect that I really enjoyed in The Glass Rainbow, a fresh element to a superlative series, was the way Robicheaux and Purcel more than ever had to struggle with their own aging and mortality.

Personally, as much as I love certain crime fiction characters and would love to see them go on and on in perpetuity (more stories to read), I think it adds something to a series if the characters significantly age and evolve, rather than staying relatively the same. It's part of life, and different things are important at different ages, and stages, of our lives. I think it's great for ongoing crime series to address that. The best crime fiction is about much more than plot, and even the best characters will get less interesting if they don't evolve over time.

Along with the murky gumbo of violence and other issues Robicheaux finds himself entangled with during The Glass Rainbow, I really thought Burke did a good job addressing the shadow of death that casts itself longer and longer over he and Clete's lives. A reckoning is coming, perhaps quickly.

The Glass Rainbow is a masterpiece of crime writing. It won't be for everyone - if your tastes veer strongly towards the staccato chapters and breezy action over character of thriller authors like James Patterson and his ilk, then I wouldn't necessarily recommend making the leap straight to Burke. He's like a handcrafted small batch whiskey; far superior in quality and skill, but never going to beat Jim Beam for popularity or distribution with the masses. One to be appreciated by the aficionados.

Layered and lush, with intricate plotting, compelling characters both ongoing and guest stars, philosophical insights and lyrical prose, The Glass Rainbow is superlative, and illustrates why the likes of the great John Connolly call Burke the world's greatest living crime writer (as Connolly says, "you could argue, but you'd be wrong"). It's sublime and superlative stuff.

Craig Sisterson is a lapsed lawyer who writes features for leading magazines and newspapers in several countries. He has interviewed more than 180 crime writers, discussed crime writing onstage at literary festivals in Europe and Australasia, and on national radio and top podcasts, has been a judge of the Ned Kelly Awards, and is the Judging Convenor of the Ngaio Marsh Awards. You can follow him on Twitter: @craigsisterson

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