Dave Robicheaux is probably one of the greatest detectives in literature. A bold statement, and just my opinion obviously, but seldom has a character been created within the pages of book who draws you into their world with such plenitude, that even though you've never been there you can feel the dripping moisture from the pecan leaves and live oaks as it hits the back of your neck in the stifling heat of the Deep South. I've never been to New Orleans or even Louisiana, but through the previous 17 of James Lee Burke's Robicheaux novels and now with his 18th 'The Glass Rainbow' I feel I could take you on a tour from the cafes of Dave's very own New Iberia, to the back street bars of New Orleans, up to Lake Pontchartrain, along the Bayou Teche and down the Atchafalaya river.
The novels unfold through the eyes of Robicheaux, told in the first person, but it's not so much him talking as Burke. Robicheaux is Burke's alter ego, in as much as Brett Easton Ellis recently admitted to Sabotage Times that he was Patrick Bateman. The Robicheaux novels are love letters to Southern Louisiana and New Iberia - the shared home town of author and his creation. Love letters to a more innocent time, of street cars rattling up and down the streets of New Orleans, zydeco bands playing to crowds of creoles who spend their evenings dancing and enjoying hearty bowls of fresh Cajun seafood. Love letters to the slower paced life out on the Bayou, of brown pelicans and the simple joy of fishing, and the lush drenched foliage that saturates each novel. Burke aches for a time that you wonder ever really existed. He's all too aware of what lurks in the background, be it in local government or the columned white stucco plantation buildings built on the forced labour of others and so beloved of his villains.
Burke has put Robicheaux through the mill. Sadistically so. A recovering alcoholic, Vietnam vet who's seen his wives divorce him, murdered and killed off by illness. A man constantly taunted by both the criminals he hunts and his own demons from the past. He's gone from making his living as a cop on the beat with his partner Clete - the Mr Hyde to Dave's barely restrained Dr Jekyll - in New Orleans, to vice, to sheriff's deputy out in the sticks from which he's been relieved of duty more times than I can remember. He's not your stereotypical 'cop who doesn't play by the rules' Robicheaux is an 'everyman' who fights the corner of the ordinary folk deemed insignificant by the privileged and the powerful - be they politicians, the mafia, big business or somewhere in between. Burke's pen moves Robicheaux through a sea of grey, there's no black and white or good and bad.
Every novel will typically feature a series of villains - the rich family patriarch with an inherited family wealth, the local hood made good through whichever means necessary who's intentions are often unclear, and the career con, a malevolent, cruel and usually intelligent criminal who will spend much of the novel besting and taunting Dave. You get the impression that for Burke, these are symbols of the wrongs and greed of a modern society that forgets about the 'small people' to, rather aptly, quote BP chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg. It will be interesting to see if the BP oil spill features in an Burke novel in the same way the 16th Robicheaux novel 'Tin Roof Blowdown' was set amidst a barely disguised tirade against the ineffectiveness of the Government in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
Following 'Tin Roof Blowdown' Robicheaux escaped with his pal Clete to recuperate in the plains and mountains of Montana. Whilst the scenery was different, he found it occupied by the same wealthy, and not so wealthy, lowlives that he'd left behind. So it comes as no surprise that book number 18 'The Glass Rainbow' finds us back in New Iberia.
Robicheaux, now in "the peculiarity of entering one's eighth decade" discovers his adopted daughter Alafair (a refugee from El Salvador who he rescued from a sunken plane in his second novel, and is also the name of Burke's real life daughter, herself a novelist) is dating Kermit Abelard the grandson of patriarch Timothy Abelard who "at one time owned almost half of St. Mary Parish." Dave isn't happy, and even less so on finding out Kermit's constant companion is career criminal and ex con turned celebrity author Robert Weingart, a man Dave sees as a manipulating sociopath.
"The Abelards had paneled their sunporch with stained-glass images of unicorns and satyrs and monks at prayer and knights in armor that shone like quicksilver, turning their home into a kaleidoscopic medieval tapestry. Or perhaps, better said, they had created a glass rainbow that awakened memories of goodness and childhood innocence, all of it to hide the ruination they had brought to the Carribean-like fairyland they had inherited."
Whilst coping with this disruption to his family live, Dave is also trying to discover the link between the grisly murders of two young women. An investigation that keeps drawing him back to the Abelards, Weingart and one time pimp and drug dealer Herman Stanga. And if this wasn't enough one of Burke's most repellent characters yet drifts into town, the enigmatic Vidor Perkins, who's motives and role in events remain chillingly ambiguous.
What results is the darkest Robicheaux novel yet. Not only does his family come under immediate threat, as they have done in the past, but Robicheaux himself begins to sense his own mortality. There's a cloud that hangs over him, and the sight of a 19th century steam paddle-wheeler floating out of the mist on Bayou Teche, complete with crew and passengers beckoning him onboard is a black omen that racks up the suspense every time it appears.
How events all tie together, or of they even tie together, like most Robicheaux books is almost secondary, as it often is in real life. The climax is as angry and bloody and violent as you'll read, and you'll be left aching to climb aboard that paddle-wheeler yourself.