The Glass Rainbow: A Dave Robicheaux Novel
James Lee Burke
Simon & Schuster, 2010
448 pp., $25.99
J. Mark Bertrand
The Glass Rainbow
"Louisiana is a poem," detective Dave Robicheaux reflects in The Glass Rainbow, his eighteenth outing since 1987's The Neon Rain, "but as with the Homeric epic, it's not good to examine its heroes too closely." The epic heroes in question are slave-smugglers Jim Bowie and Jean Lafitte, but over the past two decades author James Lee Burke has made of Robicheaux a hero, too. Elegiac in tone, quixotic in character, Robicheaux narrates with a poet's eye for beauty and a theologian's sense of sin. He's surly, too, and quick with his fists. A man of both action and contemplation.
In The Glass Rainbow, there is plenty for Robicheaux to contemplate. His daughter, Alafair, has taken up with novelist Kermit Abelard, scion of one of the area's leading families, whose ever-present companion Robert Weingart (a supposedly reformed ex-con) gives Robicheaux a bad feeling. He can't focus on this problem, though, because there's a string of murdered girls in a neighboring parish nobody else seems concerned about, and a misanthropic sociopath named Vidor Perkins might have something to do with them. Even with the help of his "trickster" sidekick Clete Purcell, Robicheaux's got his hands full.
The plot may ring a bell with Burke's longtime readers. It follows a pattern that's become characteristic of the series. A psychopath comes to town, announcing himself with a series of increasingly threatening provocations, each of which Robicheaux meets with force. As the jousting continues, working up to something big, Robicheaux wrestles with his propensity toward violence, his desire for drink, and the disappearance of the Cajun culture he's known from birth. His adversaries are aided and abetted by the corrupt and dissipated oligarchs responsible for the region's decline, forcing Robicheaux to operate outside the rules, improvising some rough justice in time for the book's bloody climax.
So is The Glass Rainbow merely a rehash? Hardly. Some critics of another long-running series, Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin books, complained that situations were too often repeated and the characters sometimes came off as self-parody. For fans, though, Aubrey and Maturin could never play too much Locatelli or consume enough toasted cheese. The repetition was part of the pleasure. The same thing is true when Dave Robicheaux and Clete Purcell get together. Every interaction is a delight, even when we anticipate Clete's next crack and the inevitable lecture from Dave to follow. When the characters are so well drawn, the main purpose of the plot is to bring them together so readers can enjoy their company.
In James Lee Burke's deft hands, all the genre's familiar tropes—the hard-drinking rogue detective, the explosions of brutality, the femme fatales and psychopaths—are elevated, reinvigorated, transformed. Like John le Carré, Burke writes pulp fiction as if it were high art. Which means you can read him not just for the plot twists but for the sonorous prose. For what he has to say and how he says it.
Graham Greene said once that a ruling passion can impart the unity of a system to a shelf of novels. Dave Robicheaux's ruling passion is his longing for the lost world of his south Louisiana home, the fading culture of Acadiana. A bit of wind stirs up the sawgrass, the scent of salt comes up from the Gulf, and suddenly Robicheaux is lost in rapture:
I parked my pickup at the end of the road and got out on the asphalt and looked southward. In the alluvial sweep of the land, I thought I could see the past and the present and the future all at once, as though time were not sequential in nature but took place without a beginning or an end, like a flash of green light rippling outward from the center of creation, not unlike a dream inside the mind of God.
A bit of a mystic, Robicheaux confronts all the beauty and all the evil intermingled under the Louisiana sun, and is not unmoved by the spectacle. A lifetime of struggle has made him hard but empathetic, a combination that comes through on every page. When an interviewer asked Burke about the violence in the books, much of it meted out by the hero, she seemed surprised by his answer. Instead of condemning Robicheaux and Purcell for perpetuating the cycle of violence, Burke replied, in effect, that the bad guys had it coming. Empathy is for the victims, hardness for the perps.
Perhaps the greatest strength of the series is Robicheaux's first-person narration. Writing an entire novel from the perspective of a single character is no easy feat, and it's a testament to James Lee Burke's talent that he makes it seem so effortless. The result, though, is that the books inevitably lose something when translated to film. Two attempts have been made: Heaven's Prisoners (1996), with Alec Baldwin in the lead, and Bertrand Tavernier's In the Electric Mist (2009), which casts Tommy Lee Jones as the Cajun detective. Tavernier famously adapted Jim Thompson's classic Pop. 1280 as Coup de torchon (1981), so he's no stranger to the genre, but capturing Robicheaux onscreen proves tricky. Without the first-person narration, the story can pass for just another exotic mystery set beneath the magnolias—which it emphatically is not.