“The Glass Rainbow” by James Lee Burke



This is the latest installment in James Lee Burke’s series of crime novels featuring the New Iberia, Louisiana detective Dave Robicheaux. It finds Dave caught up in solving the mystery behind a series of murders of young women.

First things first: “The Glass Rainbow” maintains Burke’s high standard of engaging prose as the author revisits his signature theme of good and evil. As in previous outings, Dave Robicheaux’s world-view remains a tragic one.  Once again Tripod, the three-legged pet raccoon, climbs trees and enjoys ice cream.  Dave acquires yet another nickname (Robocop). As before, Dave teams up with his pal Clete to vanquish foes. As always, the coastal Louisiana environment, lyrically serenaded, is an ever-present protagonist, more than eager to convert to antagonist during a climactic (and, you know, not unprecedented) home-invasion episode. In short, here is everything we want in a Robicheaux novel. While “The Glass Rainbow” has its flaws, it is a fine addition to the now 18-volume series and a pleasure to read.

Picking up a newly-released Dave Robicheaux novel is like getting together with that super-charged friend from school days, the inveterate trouble-magnet, the one who long ago ventured off and settled in some exotic locale. Every year or two he pays a return visit, and so you get together for a long session of catching-up and you hear the kind of first-person stories only he can tell, told in a good-hearted, world-weary voice that commands your attention. Your friend’s character-driven tales twist and turn, shifting from factual to lyrical, from realism to the metaphysical, and then back again. His newest story ends, as they always do, in an improbably baroque climax, leaving the narrator battered but alive to see another day, leaving you slack-jawed and sated.

In “The Glass Rainbow,” each scene is masterfully constructed, building to a crescendo of tension, pushing the narrative forward with a shard of revelation.  The economical way Burke sketches characters, and his visceral handling of action, are the skills of a fine craftsman. My past experience, when reading the previous novels in the series, was to come upon moments when, I felt, the pace slackened or the prose almost went off the rails. This feeling never arose with “The Glass Rainbow.”

I would not categorize “The Glass Rainbow” as one of Burke’s plot-heavy, plot-driven books.  In fact, major components this ostensible whodunit are left unrevealed at the book’s end.  It contains the usual cohort of colorful, sometimes over-the-top minor characters. My favorite is a wise-cracking 12-year-old named Buford who gets into snap insult contests with Clete Purcel, Dave’s longtime friend.  The now adult Alafair, Dave’s daughter, has become a distinctive force of her own, possessing her own whip-smart voice in argument.  Like her father, Alafair is a bundle of contradictions: a Stanford Law student with an off-the-chart IQ who is as gullible as a child; a receptive and resourceful woman who nevertheless is caught up in an obvious snare.

Fortunately for the reader, what is the irreducible core of the book, it’s true propellant, is the Dave and Clete Show. The repertoire of this pair of lawmen is broad and deep. The two call to mind Mutt and Jeff, Felix and Oscar, Don Quixote and Sancho Panza.  There’s more love between them than in most marriages.  Their repartee now includes bittersweet reflections on growing old (or, in Clete’s case, his adamant refusal, at times, to grow up).  I chuckled whenever Clete’s irrepressible descriptions of his recent sexual exploits caused the prim Dave to squirm and say, Shut up — I don’t want to hear that stuff!

“The Glass Rainbow” differs from several earlier Robicheaux books in grounding its story more solidly in realism. Earlier volumes experimented with Burke’s theme that the dead live amongst us and the past is not past but always present (a notion he shares with Faulkner). On occasion Burke eased close to adopting a Southern Gothic version of Latin Magic Realism, most sensationally in the sixth book in the series, “In the Electric Mist with Confederate Dead.”  In contrast, “The Glass Rainbow” is part of a pull back, as was “The Tin Roof Blowdown,” set in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Real horrors trump imagined grotesques.

Dave and his third wife Molly now live in town. Abandoned is Dave’s former bayou home with its dock and Bait Shop that figured so prominently as a setting for the first dozen or so books. I miss Dave’s stalwart manager of the dockside business, Batiste.  This means Dave’s domestic milieu lacks an immediate, immersive relationship to nature; he now only “visits” that raw natural world in his pickup. After finishing “The Glass Rainbow” it occurred to me that not once had I heard the cry of a nutria; instead, the patron animal for this book seems to be a blue heron.  “The Glass Rainbow” also eschews a serious confrontation with Louisiana political power that energized earlier books (and no federal agents stop by this time either). There is also a diminished role for religion. Characters occupy a smaller circle, closer to home.  While these are all losses, the situation is redeemed by the opportunity to move the strong Dave-Clete and Dave-Alafair relationships to center stage.  This provides more than enough substance and depth to support a 433-page tale.

It goes without saying that Burke is in firm control of his material, yet the veteran reader may feel the author is taking a play-it-safe approach this outing.  Or say that Burke’s ambitions are muted.  The trajectory of the plot is more streamlined than usual, the action centered on the present day, with few flashbacks (except for asides designed to familiarize new readers with Dave and Clete’s background). There is no complex layering of multiple subplots. The cast of characters is a bit narrower than usual. All of this serves to make “The Glass Rainbow” one of the quickest-to-read books in the series.

Solving the mystery of the murders of a group of young women is not the real subject of the book (in fact, their stories soon recede into the background, and much is left unexplained at the book’s end). Instead, the focus of the suspense is on the fate of three persons: Dave, Alafair, and Clete. It is through dialog that these three are seen at their best (and worst) — and it is dialog that provided me with maximum delight, particularly when it serves as the platform for comic relief.

When the supremely self-aware Dave observes others, he lets no gesture go unremarked, no suppressed twitch unnoticed. Clete and Alafair’s perceptivity is nearly as acute.  They too skillfully track the emotional states of others, except when they themselves are blinded by love.  All in all, you could not ask for better guides to the moral dimensions of the story.

The real subject of “The Glass Rainbow,” as with all Robicheaux narratives, is good and evil. That is a large subject, of course. Over the course of an intriguing hour-long interview conducted with the author in 1998 (its first segment is available here), Burke made the following points:

-   There is a minority of people who thread their way in and out of the fabric of society who are indeed wicked.

-   Dave Robicheaux recognizes environmental and genetic sources for criminal and psychopathic behavior, but he’s most intrigued by the existence of a third category.  Not directed by environment or genes, there are people “who reach a moment of choice where, of their own volition, they step across a line and deliberately murder the light of God in their soul. They eradicate His thumbprint from the soul, as Dave says. It’s a conscious choice. And they enter the Kingdom of darkness.”

-   Evil always consumes itself; it’s just a matter of time. That’s not only the nature of the universe, its also the path of the human soul.

-   In terms of a story line, the hand of justice works from somewhere outside of the criminal justice system.

In that same interview, Burke mentioned his belief in the presence of  “the other side” (in “The Glass Rainbow,” Dave has repeated encounters with a 19th century steamboat, whose crew calls out to him to join the realm of the dead).  Burke explained:

“I subscribe to a belief in the unseen. I believe those spirits [the dead] are with us. I believe the visible world is the external manifestation of one that’s far more complex than we could ever imagine in our wildest dreams. . . . I believe the world is inhabited as much by the dead as by the living.”

Are there deficiencies in “The Glass Rainbow”?  Yes. A central character named Kermit Abelard, wealthy scion of Louisiana aristocracy whom we come to learn is a member of Dave’s “third category” of evildoers, is insufficiently developed.  Kermit’s passivity and his lack of charisma weaken the climactic home-invasion battle, an episode which desperately needs a three-dimensional figure if it is to sustain the reader’s loyalty. A related flaw is that Kermit’s relationship with Alafair does not ring true, a condition not assisted by the fact that Burke keeps the pair’s intimacy offstage. Another disappointment is that not much is done with another favorite theme of Burke’s: the path from atonement to redemption to restoration. Significantly, this book ends abruptly, with Dave’s successful defense of his home. Unlike previous books, Burke offers us no epilogue, no period for a calm aftermath.

People new to James Lee Burke are likely to ask where they should start. Should it be with this latest release? My view is that reading the novels chronologically is ideal . . . and not very realistic since by now the size of the backlist is daunting.  Plus, I suspect most fans did not follow a pristine chronological path, anyway. I first met Dave in the middle of his life (in the rambling “Dixie City Jam”). I then looped back to the starting point (“The Neon Rain”); proceeded to tear through paperbacks; got caught up; and followed him ever since.

So where to begin?  Most of us, even if we hesitate to claim a single favorite Robicheaux book, do have a more-favored book — the one that inches slightly ahead of the pack.  For me that book is “Purple Cane Road” (maybe because uncovering his mother’s story meant so much to Dave). Burke himself in the interview I mentioned previously said he felt “Sunset Limited” was the best in the series up to that point. When asked about “In the Electric Mist with Confederate Men,” he admitted, “I’m real fond of that book as well.” I’m guessing among serious readers there’s no consensus on which is “best”.  When you consider the consistent quality of the writing, the recurring thematic concerns, and the immutability of Dave and Clete, I think the newcomer can jump in at any point.  And keep in mind that if  “The Glass Rainbow” provides your first introduction, Burke has already considered your situation: as the story unfolds, whenever the reader needs to know some element of Dave or Clete or Alafair’s past, Burke is there with a quick and clear synopsis.

So my advice is this: Just start.  James Lee Burke is too good to miss.

(A condensed version of this post appears as a book review on Amazon, here.)

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36 Responses to ““The Glass Rainbow” by James Lee Burke”

  1. paul says:

    I did not buy the book because I thought that Dave died at the end. Is this so? If not I will read it as I think Burke one of the great (moral) writers of our age

  2. MikeEttner says:

    Paul — You might want to continue to monitor the book on Amazon, where someone has started a discussion thread on the question of what happens to Dave and Clete at the end of the book. I think they survive. Others disagree. I don’t think the author has said anything in interviews on way or the other. Thanks for your comment.


  3. Jeff says:

    I hope he and Clete live. Reminds me of another book where the action hero is not defined at the end to life or death. I think they live.

  4. Calvin says:

    Actually, for the author, a perfect ending. One that leaves the life or death of core characters to his discretion, and regardless of the decision, one that will have readers clamoring for the next one! Enjoyed the post Mike.

  5. MikeEttner says:

    Calvin — Thanks for your comment. Two friends whose opinions I trust have said the same thing to me. As for disbelievers who think Dave and Clete can’t continue their detective roles long past their prime, I have a one word answer: Ironside. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ironside_(TV_series).


  6. Kat says:

    Just finished the book and I am in tears! Bobbsey twins forever in this life – and the next? What a loss it would be. Absolutely love the series.

    Ps- found your post because I went online to see if there was a definite answer out there about whether Dave lives or dies. So glad it’s undecided!

  7. SUSIE says:

    I have been up all night after finishing the Book and ,as always thought it excellent. But, I love New Orleans and the New Iberia area and feel that Dave and Clete have always been my time portal to return!Once I begin a novel, I can’t put it down. I can only hope that Dave and Clete survived in that I am so inmeshed with these two characters, that if I thought they’d died, I’d be on a plane today to mourn at the area of their supposed demise!!!! What disturbed me is that all of the following pages were white,And this was DIFFERENT. I feel that I’ve lost two of the greatest guys I ever knew—dear God , they have to survive;it was like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in Bolivia!

  8. SUSIE says:

    I had to go online also to see if Dave and Clete survived their latest ESCAPADE!!I was in tears also at the end of the Novel in that I am so inmeshed with these two characters, that they have become my time portal back to New Orleans and the Cajun country! What bothered me is that all of the remaining pages were white —it was like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in Bolivia.Thank you for Hope!

  9. Liz says:

    I just finished the audiobook, read by the amazing Will Patton. I loved it-being from Canada, but always interested in Louisiana, the descriptions are so vivid that I can picture it easily. The relationship between Dave and Clete throughout all the books is solid-I can only hope that they survived, and being an optimist I will say they did, plus I can’t imagine not having another book to read/listen to with such characterization and setting. I also came to this website to see if anyone else wondered about the ending. Mike, your review was very well written, and you were able to say what I was thinking in a good way!

  10. Andy says:

    I think Clete and Dave survive. They have to. For what drives JLB’s work is an unshakable conviction that good always triumphs over evil.

  11. Dan Luzadder says:

    I found it distressing that the ending of The Glass Rainbow raises the specter that this is the end of the Robicheaux series. But I saw something darker: Mr. Burke’s reference well before the close to a detective “entering his eighth decade.” James Lee Burke is in his own 8th decade. Though his skills increase each time he publishes (though, unlike Chandler or Hammett, he has never gotten the full literary credit he is due, because of current publishing’s overpopulated ‘genre’ category) he clearly is contemplating not only the mortality of his characters Purcell and Robicheaux only his own as well. I have read Burke since hearing him interviewed more than a decade ago on NPR’s ‘Fresh Air’ (with Terri Gross). I subsequently read one Robicheaux novel, was hooked, and started back with his earliest book, and read through the list; I have never been disappointed. I have collected them all, given away a full set no doubt to friends, and have pulled duplicates out of Louisiana and western books stores looking for signed firsts. I have read the greats, and to me Burke holds a spot among that honored list; he can compete with any of them – for not only the art of his prose, but his sensitivity, and his humanity. But beyond that – speaking as one who has lived life close to the bone – I can say he understands violence and passion, the uncontrolled nature of the human psyche; he is familiar with the spiritual interplay of irony and despair, and has knowledge of the souls of the unforgiven. I think he is preparing for the possibility that he may be unable to write another novel – a preparation of the inevitable, if you will. I pray he writes again, and again, and that the last period on the last sentence of the last novel, long in the future, gives us all that one last glimpse into life as he sees it – in a way we can carry with us to our own ends.

  12. Teresa says:

    I was left in shambles at the end of this book, and even at my age of 70 years old, I find myself tearing up with the thought that Dave has died. Burke has made him into such a real person that the reader feels everything that Dave feels. He is a part of us. He cannot die, although I can fully understand Burke’s wanting to end the series after such a wonderful successful run. And the tears fall.

  13. Maureen says:

    This book really hit home. I also feel devastated at the ending, as I am a senior with serious health problems struggling with some of the same issues with which Dave contends. James Lee Burke’s use of poetic imagery and his very real commentary on the tragedies of 21st century life (war-government-idiocy-lose of the American dream) has served to take me away from my own stupid problems. Reading his books has given me hours away from my own stupid pain and depression. I really hope there will be another book from Mr. Burke whether or not it’s in the Robicheax series. But it saddens me that my feeling at the end of this book was a sense of defeat in the morass of today’s life – that Dave & Clete’s death was a resignation from the fight.

  14. Dwight Stewart says:

    A part of me is praying for the pinkness of another dawn, like finding safe harbor inside a giant conch shell, the winds of youth and spring echoing eternally…Clete and Dave as old men enjoying the birth of Alafair’s off-springs.

    I am literally crushed with the mere notion that these two are at an end. They are my idols…men among men. The mastery of Will Patton’s reading and the artistry of Burke’s writing is a gift to the world. I had the good fortune of studying at UNO and even though I now live in Canada, this series has kept me in touch with that part of my life.

  15. Jeannie says:

    Ah…finished the book with my heart in my throat & my lip quivering. I think JLB is easily the finest writer of our time. His prose weaves through your soul & pulls you into the world of New Iberia. Although I have read all his work, Dave & Clete are my heroes. Deeply flawed, yet worthy of redemption & filled with a purity that goes to the bone, I feel as if I know them. Their death will somehow diminish me as their fictional lives left me better for having known them. Clete & Dave need to keep on–fight the good fight, cook the bad guys hash and save the unredeemable…it can’t be over, can it?

  16. Don says:

    If it is the end for Dave I have a feeling that his daughter may take over and JLB can start a new series line, perhaps including Clete, that his author/daughter Alafair Burke can collaborate on and someday take over.

  17. Robert says:

    I’ve now read all the Dave Robicheaux books, and, a couple of them out of order, and perhaps all at too brisk a pace. There is a gap that I can’t sort out. Was Bootsie’s death covered in any of the books, or did it just happen between books and we’re simply left with her memory?

  18. Leanne says:

    The combination of JLB’s prose and Will Patton’s interpretation becomes a separate entity that is both lush and palpable. While Dave and Clete may want to die together rather than one lose the other, I’m not ready to let them go yet. Please say it ain’t so…

  19. Lynda says:

    I also found this site because I was searching to see if Dave & Clete really died in The Glass Rainbow; amazing how these characters have such a pull on us, and I’m English! It seems an ambiguous end, so JLB could quite easily ‘revive’ them for the next in the series.

    I had a sense of foreboding whilst reading from at least the second half of this novel, because Dave was having premonitions of his own death (and they seem to be confirmed by the great great granddaughter of a well-known clairvoyant). The grim reaper also seems to have appeared in one of Clete’s dreams! In dreams they compare, the lack of Time is looming large…we’ll just have to wait and see.

    As mentioned by Robert above, I too was puzzled regarding Bootsie’s death. I have read all the books in the series but over a number of years, so wondered if I’d inadvertently missed one somewhere along the line. Molly seemed to appear from nowhere. A shame about Bootsie – I miss her:-(

  20. Dan says:

    Lynda, I think Bootsie died from cancer or something similar. My personal take on it is that Dave and Clete die and that this is the last book. Although it is strange to be reading a first person account of his death from Dave but given the author’s age and all the premonitions in it I think Dave and Clete are toast. Burke may have done written it this way to have the option to go either way, resume the series or let it end here.

  21. Such fine writers among these comments! Bootsie did die between two books; Dave received condolences only, and it was lupus. Likewise his house by the boat dock burned “off camera” during the same time period.
    I have heard that Dickens was met by an irate crowd when his ship pulled into San Francisco after he “let” a little girl character, Little Nell, die, and pelted with rotten vegetables. While I kneel at JLB’s figurative feet and would never do that, I understand what drove them. The world without a new Dave Robicheaux book somewhere out there is a world I don’t want to contemplate. I loved the comment above that for this to end it would be letting evil triumph. I will cling to that…

  22. mirabai says:

    Like many of the above commenters, I found this site because of the ambiguity of the ending. In my first reading, there is considerable foreshadowing, and for Dave and Clete to more or less “go into the light” together, at the end, did not surprise me. Throughout the whole series, people appear, then are no more, with little explanation—much like our own lives: and we move on.
    This is a great, rich series, and though I hope JLB will write another, if he is to end the Robicheaux story here, it has a completeness that is satisfying.
    Long life and best wishes to Mr Burke.

  23. dustin says:

    great book hope it’s not the end.

  24. Norma says:

    Clete pulled Dave back down the gangplank. They survived!

  25. Bob Gatlin says:

    Please say it ain’t so!

  26. NANCY says:

    I have loved reading about Dave, Clete, Tripod and all of the other characters that JLB has created the past 20 years. It is a complete world. I have aged right along with them and am probably about the same age as Dave and Clete (60′s) Dave and Clete have been so real to me. I remember in one of the books, it looked as if Clete had died and I could hardly bring myself to turn the page to confirm his death. Thankfully, it did not happen in that book. I do believe, however, that “The Glass Rainbow” was the end of the Bobbsey Twins of Homicide. Of course, they had to die together. I loved the way they went. Lovingly, Clete holding Dave, and boarding an old paddle wheel boat. Could you think of a better end for them? Mark Twain was probably waiting for them in the lounge of the boat.

  27. gay degani says:

    Glad I’m not the only one who was stunned by the ending. I really couldn’t believe it was over. Since I was listening to it, I went downstairs to find the box it came in the find the last cd. I came on like to find out when Part 2 was going to come out. So I guess no one knows.

    I’m sorry if that’s the case. I haven’t read every single one, the Jukebox Cadillac one and a couple others around there disappointed me, but the last few have been excellent. He’s pretty amazing. I hope there’s a sequel.

  28. Suzanne Novotny says:

    I am not very heartened by all of the above comments. I, too, came to this site with my question about the end of Dave and Clete. I read Glass Rainbow twice just to confirm my impression that it might actually be the end and Burke has finished the series, and, yes, he is in his 80s and Dave is pushing it — a shock somehow. Also I realized that Wallender got Alzheimer’s and died and Adam Dalglieish finally married and wandered off…..so I suppose it is possible. And Burke is not saying…perhaps that is a good sign? He has since published another great book about his also elderly Texas lawman…

  29. Charles says:

    Did ANY of the books tell what happened to Batiste? He just disappeared without a word about him. Does anyone know if there was an explanation for why he was no longer around?

  30. Lynne says:

    I really enjoyed your review. I have been hanging onto this book since the day it came out. Don’t know why, exactly, but the fact that a new Dave is due in July, helped me deal with the end. Burke’s second series is very, very good indeed, but it’s Dave I love. It’s Dave I’d run off with…in Clete’s convertible!
    You were right about the nutria. I kept waiting for it and it never happened. I could still smell the bayou, though. Also, I agree completely with your assessment of Kermit and what they were up to. What the heck was really in that toolbox? Was that Dave being a prude or Burke not wanting to go there? Why didn’t that little kid come back into things? and why not more digging on the tennis player?
    If I didn’t know there was a book coming out, I would have contended he was trying to end the series with this book. I hope he doesn’t feel he’s gone as far as he can with Dave.
    One of the match-ups that is deepening with Dave is that with Helen. She is rapidly becoming a favorite character of mine. He could develop her, and the relationship with Dave, more.
    But, as did you, apparently, I missed the grounding of his home. When he allowed the family home to burn – off the page, as it were – I knew that spelled a kind of exit of Batiste, and that grieved me. Batiste served as the grounding that he attempted to give with Bootsie and Molly. As tight as that is, there is no comparison to the relationship he had with Batiste, as well as Alafair’s. To me, in this book, he really blew by that in his back story sentence about Alafair and Batiste. You know and I know that Batiste was central to her as a toddler.
    As to your question about which book to begin with, I first read Black Cherry Blues. I, too, then did the homework to find the others, but at that time the first books were out of print! I got lucky. He’d sent signed copies to a professor of writing in this area and they wound up in a used book dealer’s inventory. As his books gained traction, the first non-Dave books were reprinted, as well. Favorite one? Hard to say with complete conviction, but maybe it was that first one – the one that sucked me in to the world of Dave. Yeah. Black Cherry Blues.

  31. Marc says:

    I am wondering about Batiste also. He seemed to know Dave quite well and was a great character.

    Come on, James Lee……one more book…..Dave and Clete still have some spark in them.

  32. Jenny says:

    I am so glad that so many others care about the ambiguous ending of The Glass Rainbow. I just finished it this morning, after reading it for most of the night. I would be thrilled if someone made a movie of the book – a really good one – that had… yes I admit it… a happy ending. I shall now devote some quality time to imagining who would have the starring roles. Does anyone have any interesting theories as to why Dave and Clete refer to themselves as the Bobbsey Twins? I am referring to the fact that the fictional Bobbsey Twins were actually four people: two sets of identical twins. I find that interesting.

  33. TonyB says:

    Lime Norma said in an earlier post, Clete pulled Dave DOWN the gangplank of the Ghost Ship ….they survived! Brings to mind Tony Soprano about to enter the big house on the hill…he doesnt, and lives…until he is shot in the final episode, which is less ambiguous than many would make it. Anyway, Clete and Dave did not get onboard, which gives us reason for a cautiously optomistic interpretation.

  34. TonyB says:

    While Mr. Burke does give us the opportunity to chose an optomistic conclusion, there is a lot of foreshadowing to suggest otherwise….as Chase did with his enigmatic Sopranos conclusion. I particularly liked and thought significant Dave’s inner monologue about the big questions in life…why the innocent suffer and the meaning of evil…and like Chase’s question posed I think in the “Soprano’s Home Movies” episode…”Do you think you hear the one that gets you?”….Dave comments on not knowing or choosing the time and place of our demise..only that “we are all headed back to the barn”. What a great ride it’s been….thank you Mr. Burke!

  35. TonyB says:

    Just noteiced on Amazon “Creole Bell, a Dave Robicheaux novel”…to be released in hardcover July 2012. Thank you, Mr. Burke!

  36. ray says:

    the last few pages were so intense I had to skip to the end…..please don’t let Clete and Dave be dead.

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