In James Lee Burke's newest novel, The Glass Rainbow, Dave Robicheaux, the New Iberia, La., deputy who is Burke's most enduring character, remarks, "Death comes in many forms. But it always comes. And for that reason, 'inevitability,' may be the worst word in the English language." It's the kind of cryptic truism we're used to hearing from the hero-detectives of hardboiled crime novels and it's a reminder that unlocking the key to the detectives' inner wisdom is as much a part of any mystery as the whodunit aspect.
As with previous Burke novels, this one begins with a gruesome, unsolved murder. Well, to be exact: seven unsolved murders. The bodies of the seven female victims from Jefferson Davis Parish—some of them prostitutes, all of them young—had each been found in ditches and swamp areas over the course of several years. The women were all from poor neighborhoods, "where the residents parked their cars in the yards and the litter in the rain ditches disappeared inside the weeds during the summer and was exposed again during the winter." Death may come in different forms, but it's also reported in different ways—or not reported, as the case happens to be here. Later in the novel, when present at the crime scene of a much higher profile victim, Robicheaux points out yet another truism, that "any serious student of popular media will tell you that the real story lies not in what is written but in what is left out." While the murder of the high profile victim "was the stuff of Elizabethan drama; the murder of the girls in Jefferson Davis Parish didn't merit the ink it would take to fill a ballpoint pen."
What piques Robicheaux's curiosity is that the seventh victim, 17-year-old Bernadette Latiolais, a high school honor student, doesn't fit the profile of the other six victims. Robicheaux's questioning leads him to Herman Stanga, a reviled pimp and drug dealer who has allowed his suburban mansion to decay in order to bring down the value of all the homes in the neighborhood. Stanga denies involvement, but will later be confronted and beaten, nearly to death, by Robicheaux's best friend, private investigator Clete Purcel.
Despite his preoccupation with this latest case, Robicheaux can't help but be troubled by his adopted daughter's love life. Alafair, a 23-year-old Stanford law student on leave for a semester to finish her novel, is being courted by Kermit Abelard. Not only is Kermit a celebrated novelist in his own right, but he's also a scion of Louisana's oldest wealthy family. The Abelards, dripping with corruption and sweet-tasting brandy, are the literary descendants of Faulkner's Compson family, and though Robicheaux can't quite put his finger on the problem, his instincts tell him that Kermit Abelard is trouble. To make matters worse, Kermit's best friend (and, seemingly, his shadow) is Robert Weingart, an ex-convict best-selling author (rumor has it that his female attorney writes his novels) who is a vintage Burkian villain: cool as a cucumber and mean as hell—just for the sport of it.
It's easy to separate this novel into two halves, both compelling and well-worth the heft of 430 pages. The first half is more familiar, the kind of James Lee Burke mystery that readers expect, with its modern noir-esque prose, its straight-talk dialogue and an array of characters who are all too familiar with the kind of human depravity that makes the rest of us ache. In its second half, however, a reflective tone that haunted the earlier pages takes center stage. Though Burke never loses site of the mystery at hand, the reader gradually realizes that this novel is as much about Robicheaux (and, to some extent, Purcel) as it is about the murders of the seven girls. Unlike his forebears, Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe, Robicheaux is not simply a magnetic personality on the page, one whose charisma is needed to supply the momentum to the novel. Robicheaux is an evolving, dynamic character whose story is as crucial to the turns of the novel as is the gathering of clues and elimination of suspects. In a way, this has always been true of the Robicheaux series, as Burke has made the reader privy to Robicheaux's personal demons: bouts of depression, alcoholism, the deaths of his first wife and his parents, and his devastating service in Vietnam. Yet, if the Robicheaux series might be considered as a whole, then The Glass Rainbow is its zenith—the point at which Robicheaux reaches his highest points of wisdom and humility.
Gripping and tautly written throughout, Burke shows himself at his own zenith in the novel's magnetic and captivating conclusion: a startling tableaux where James Lee Burke, the hardboiled crime fiction writer, and James Lee Burke, the poet and sage, meet for a memorable conclusion, one that haunts the reader for days afterward.
James Lee Burke reads from The Glass Rainbow at Fact & Fiction Tuesday, July 13, at 7 PM. Free.