THE GLASS RAINBOW
By James Lee Burke
Simon & Schuster, $25.99, 434 pages
Let's be frank. There are few, if any, writers in the genre the French call "romans policiers" who approach
the lyrical rhythm, warp and weave and the symbolism, simile and metaphor of the poetical in their work while retaining all the unsentimental, rough-edged suspense and chokehold violence of classic fiction noir. James Lee Burke does, and his 18th Dave Robicheaux novel, "The Glass Rainbow," is ample evidence of his remarkable and longevous talents over some 30 books.
This book opens in Mississippi with Robicheaux's laconic, Faulknerian description of the room he's rented for the night in Natchez: "The wood floor and the garish wallpaper and the rain spots on the ceiling belonged to another era, one that was outside time and unheedful of the demands of commerce. Perhaps as a reminder of that fact, the only clock in the room was a round windup mechanism that possessed neither a glass cover nor hands on its face." I know writers who'd give up a year of their lives to write sentences like that.
Similarly, there are few writers who can distill in a few perfectly chosen words just about everything you need to know about a new character and where he fits in the book's universe and the protagonist's as well. Most authors, in these days of co-writers, ghosts and books-by-committee, tend toward supersizing descriptions, resulting in obese paragraphs of obvious, cliche-larded politically correct blather. Worse, when it comes to values, they waffle.
Believe me, les romans policiers is no place for moral relativism. And, thankfully, it's not for Mr. Burke. Here's how Robicheaux pigeonholes Elmore Latiolais, convict: "His facial features were Negroid, but his skin was the color of paste, covered with large moles as thick and irregular in shape as drops of mud, his wiry hair peroxided a bright gold. He was one of those recidivists whose lives are a testimony to institutional failure and the fact that for some people and situations there are no solutions."
Robicheaux, recovering alcoholic, local boy whose father worked the oil platforms, husband of Molly the former nun and father of Alafair, whom he rescued as a child and brought into his home, is one of those self-doubting yet morally incorruptible characters who, like all truly Adamic American antiheroes, lives by his own set of consistent natural laws. Take Robicheaux on the subject of murder:
"Over the years I had come to believe that almost all homicides to one degree or another, are premeditated. A man who enters a convenience store with a loaded pistol has already made a decision about its possible use. A person who commits an abduction, knowing nothing about the victim's heart condition or that of the victim's loved ones, has already decided on the side of self-interest and is not worried about the fate of others. Even a man in a barroom fight, when he continues to kick a downed opponent trapped on the floor, knows exactly what he is doing."
This view, while arguably spot on in my opinion, is probably not shared by the ACLU.
Or this Robicheauxian musing on sociopaths:
"Maybe their fathers were violent drunks and their mothers wanted them aborted. Maybe they were crack babies, or they were born ugly or poor or stupid or poorly educated and denied access to a better life. But when you have seen the handiwork of their kind up close and personal, none of the aforementioned seems to offer an adequate explanation for their behavior."
Robicheaux understands that some people are so evil that the only two rational choices left to society are to put them away forever or put them down for good. He prefers the latter. That's why he carries a .45 ACP single-action pistol and will use it when necessary.
The sociopath to whom Robicheaux is alluding above is named Robert Weingart, a former inmate at the Texas State Penitentiary in Huntsville. Weingart, in the style of such ex-cons as the late Edward Bunker (the San Quentin denizen who went on to write the 1975 best-seller "No Beast So Fierce"), has become a literary celebrity. Weingart is a client of the William Morris talent agency and the friend of a local novelist, Kermit Abelard, scion of one of the area's old-money families. Weingart has, in fact, moved into the Abelard mansion.
Robicheaux, a detective from the Iberia Parish Sheriff's Department, intersects with Weingart because Robicheaux's daughter Alafair, a budding novelist, is involved with Kermit Abelard. Instinctively, Robicheaux likes neither man. Alafair thinks he's being unfair. Prejudiced. Close-minded. And Robicheaux? Dave's an old police dog with a good nose.
And these two? They're giving off the wrong scent. But that all comes later. At the beginning, all we know is that Robicheaux is out of his jurisdiction because the convict Elmore Latiolais' sister Bernadette is one of seven victims in a string of killings of young women in New Iberia - serial killings of prostitutes, so the story goes - that Robicheaux is investigating.
Except ... Bernadette turns out not to be a prostitute. And while some of the killings seem indeed to be the work of a particularly nasty serial killer, Bernadette's murder, Robicheaux comes to believe, is the result of other, equally dark and despicable motives.
He's been drawn into the murder case through his old friend and former brother-in-arms Cletus Purcel, with whom he'd worked on the New Orleans Police Department. Purcel and Robicheaux were known as the Bobbsey Twins. These days, Clete's drinking and violent tendencies have become a real problem. In fact, Clete's about to get busted, and prison isn't out of the question. And then there are Robicheaux's intimations of mortality. He's getting recurring dreams. He's seeing things. "Stuff" is haunting him. Clete keeps telling him, "the Bobbsey Twins from Homicide Are Forever."
By midbook, Robicheaux isn't so sure. I could go on and describe the plot. But honestly, Mr. Burke has designed such a brilliantly intricate maze and populated it with such wonderfully complex characters that it would be a shame to explain any of it. In fact, doing so would detract from the pure pleasure of unpeeling this extraordinary piece of fiction noir layer by layer by layer.
John Weisman's latest novels, "Jack in the Box" and "Direct Action," are available as Avon paperbacks. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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