Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The Glass Rainbow by James Lee Burke

Anyone who knows me, especially readers and even more so writers, is probably sick of hearing me talk about James Lee Burke. I admittedly have a man-crush on him. He is my favorite contemporary author. He, for the most part, writes crime fiction, and his themes are consistent. They are the corruptible qualities of wealth and political power. The flip-side of that theme is the helplessness of "the other America"

The Glass Rainbow is Burke's latest effort in the long running Dave Robicheaux series of novels. Robicheaux is a Cajun cop in New Iberia, Louisiana. The Glass Rainbow contains all the colorful characters, lush prose, and disturbing violence readers have come to expect of a Robicheaux novel. It centers on the murders of two young girls in Jefferson Davis Parish - one a poverty-stricken local honor student about to begin studies at LSU, the other a girl who had gone missing from Canada. Burke has mentioned in interviews that the book was his attempt to give a voice to a real problem in Jeff Davis Parish of eight unsolved homicides of young, poor women. Their cases have evidently gotten very little attention by neither the authorities nor the press. In the novel, Dave and his trouble-making, buddy Clete Purcel seem the only ones interested in the crimes...which happen outside Dave's jurisdiction.

The Glass Rainbow
, for the most part, is a pretty middling entry in the series. I've seen so much of this before that I almost know what is going to happen before Mr. Burke fills us in. Reading the series has become kind of like eating comfort food. I reach for a Robicheaux because I know it's not going to let me down...it will be a good read and there are repeating characters that I love spending time with. The Glass Rainbow does those things...most of my reading was on autopilot. But there is this little piece of magic

----Major Spoiler Alert----

-----Seriously I Mean it---------

at the end. About ten pages from the end of the novel, Robicheaux starts narrating in a way that makes it clear that this is the end of the series. These last few pages are remarkable in that they read as a denouement despite the fact that all hell is breaking loose in a VERY violent scene. It's hard to explain what Burke pulled off here, but it was masterful...

Then, the closing passage had a touching, beautiful even, scene with Dave and Clete...almost perfect except for one thing. Mr. Burke used ambiguity to give himself an out.

I love the Robicheaux series, but I've come to enjoy the occasional standalone or when Burke strays from the expected in the series. I loved his depiction of the struggle of Louisianans during Katrina in The Tin Roof Blowdown, and felt letdown when he returned that story to more of the typical in the second half. I think that is what I found disappointing...the ending was so refreshing. Like I said, it's hard to explain it without quoting it verbatim, but it could have been (and I suppose still could be) such a poignant ending to the series, that I wish he wouldn't have given himself the opportunity to return to these characters. If it is indeed the end for Dave and Clete, it would free Burke to explore other stories. Something he has always excelled at, but with Dave's series his big seller, he has always returned to it. Whatever he decides, I'll be along for the ride...Burke is the only author I buy in Hardcover.

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