Friday, September 9, 2011

"The Glass Rainbow" by James Lee Burke

When you open a James Lee Burke novel it's like stepping out of an airplane at several thousand feet, you just don't know exactly where you are going to land. Mr. Burke, a two time Edgar Award winner, and a recipient of the Grand Master award from the Mystery Writers of America, writes so convincingly, that it is hard to tell where his life intersects with that of his main character, Dave Robicheaux. I suspect that, at times, they are one and the same.

"The Glass Rainbow", released in 2010, has New Iberia Parish Detective Dave Robicheaux back in the middle of a seemingly impossible to solve string of murders. The victims have all been young, and disenfranchised, young women, all that is except one. She is the sister of a convict in Mississippi, Elmore Latiolais, who has requested to see Detective Robicheaux after seeing a newspaper article related to his sister, Bernadette's, murder. This meeting sets in motion a chain of events that leads to the underbelly of race, religion, politics, gambling and alternative energy, all of which define the animus of present day Louisiana, as well as Texas, which in turn defines some of the forces which serve to tear apart the America of the recent past. And that is one of the strengths of James Lee Burke as a writer. He weaves real life politics and the problems of the ordinary man together seamlessly with a mystery based on the social injustices of our own times. And, as if that is not enough to satisfy you, he also connects the problems of today's society with the sins of our own past.

With his usual flair for detail, he serves up a cast of characters that becomes more diverse with each of his several dozen novels. And, with "The Glass Rainbow" he has surpassed even himself in this endeavor.

With his pal Clete Purcel at his side, and at the same time watching his back, Detective Robicheaux peels back the layers that conceal the corruption of people, and organizations, that threaten to wipe out all of the good in this world. With energy schemes, masquerading as religious good will, and involving some of the wealthiest families, it is often hard to remember that you are reading fiction.

I actually tried to diagram this book in the way that the detectives do on TV, all in a vain effort to uncover the real guilty parties before Mr. Burke serves them up. It was an effort in futility. I was on the right track, but took the wrong fork in the road in this sprawling work of fiction that has its roots in the headlines of today's newspapers. With greed and corruption at every turn, and with his daughter, Alafair, home from college, things get hot and heavy as "Streak" and Clete Purcel pursue every lead, and lowlife, in order to bring to justice the people who are really responsible for the death of Elmore Latiolais' sister, Bernadette, who was an honor student with a penchant for saving wildlife. What is her connection to the 7 arpents of land left by her grandfather?

I have never read a James Lee Burke novel without learning something about the music, history and politics that have come to define the image of New Orleans, either pre, or post Katrina.

In "The Glass Rainbow", Mr. Burke has once again done the seemingly impossible. He has blended all of these elements into a tale that sometimes has the reader going back a few pages, in order to keep things straight, while navigating the fascinating and colorful world which has become the hallmark of all his writing. And, in the end, though the good guys always win, the reader is left wondering at the price paid for the injustices inflicted upon the average man by those with so much power.

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