The Glass Rainbow by James Lee Burke
“Early morning is a bad time for recovering drunks. The wall between the unconscious and the world of sleep is soft and porous, and the gargoyles have a way of slipping into the sunlight and fastening a talon or two into the back of your neck.”
Here, at the midway point of James Lee Burke’s new crime thriller The Glass Rainbow, Dave Robicheaux, a long-time Burke protagonist, explains why he is an habitually early riser, driven to “escape into the blueness of the dawn”. Robicheaux, like his creator, is in recovery from alcoholism, or what Burke calls the ‘dirty boogie’. (In an excellent 2002 interview, Burke wryly says of Robicheaux: “The character defects are mine, none of the qualities.”)
Robicheaux has many demons to dodge – addiction, memories of his Vietnam War service, the everyday toxicity of life as a sheriff’s deputy in the crime-ridden locale of New Iberia, Louisiana– but he does so with an atypical aplomb, humility and capacity for self-reflection. His fearlessness goes unmissed neither by the reader nor the parade of villains and bottom-feeders he encounters on the job.
(One suspects that humility was in part inspired by the tough row Burke hoed in his early writing days: his fourth novel, The Lost Get Back Boogie, was rejected 111 times before being published – and then nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.)
Louisianais famed for its bayous and their reptilian inhabitants, but in Burke’s New Orleans, the deadliest creatures are on land. The Glass Rainbow is peopled with petty criminals, drug barons and pimps, crooked cops, ‘cleaners’ (former paramilitaries now employed by crime lords as assassins), and an especially memorable sociopathic writer, on whom much of the plot focuses.
No character is truly good, except perhaps Robicheaux’s wife, Molly, and daughter, Alafair, whose liaison with Kermit Abelard, the scion of a wealthy local family and friend of the aforementioned writer, sees her unwittingly caught up in her father’s investigation of the murders of seven young local women. There appears to be a financial motive for the killings, and a link between each of the women, and The Glass Rainbow’s primary plot involves Robicheaux’s attempts to ascertain these causal links.
However, as in the real Louisiana, there is much going on below the surface. Every nefarious character in New Orleans, it seems, has a role to play, and the dominant elements of life in this part of the South – the heat and humidity, the scents both fragrant and rotten, the poverty and lingering antebellum wealth and vice – are carefully denoted by Burke, who divides his time between New Iberia and his Montanaranch.
The author knows his local history: while reflecting on the still-visible evidence of Hurricane Rita, Robicheaux muses about the activities of Jim Bowie and his business partner, the pirate Jean Lafitte, who smuggled slaves illegally into the United States and kept them in a barracoon (slave barracks, but the appearance of a racial epithet is coincidence – it is from the Spanish barracon, meaning hut).
It is for such detail, among many other reasons, that reading James Lee Burke is such an exceptional experience. There is simply no other writer like him, and very few who can embed their characters so thoroughly in a specific cultural milieu.
He is not just, as many have said, one of the finest contemporary American crime writers – he is one of the best American writers of any kind at work today.
Reviewer: Stephanie Jones
The review previously published on coast.co.nz