James Lee Burke doesn't disappoint, which is one reason why, in 2009, the Mystery Writers of America honored him with its Grand Master Prize. I've relished all 17 of his Dave Robicheaux novels. Dave is a preternaturally perceptive Cajun detective who lives along the Bayou Teche in New Iberia, La., a Vietnam vet and recovering alcoholic whose hair-trigger emotions swing from rage at injustice to compassion for the disenfranchised.
Burke writes with a vivid awareness of the human capacity for evildoing, and an equally palpable sensitivity toward the natural world. He is in top form in The Glass Rainbow, his 18th Robicheaux novel. In it, Dave has several new dilemmas: a serial sadist is torturing and killing young women in neighboring Jefferson Davis Parish, La.; and Dave's adopted daughter, Alafair, a budding novelist, is dating author Kermit Abelard, a man her father doesn't trust. Kermit is the son of Timothy Abelard, a former defense contractor whom Dave sees as "a decayed vestige of the old oligarchy." The slave-owning Abelards, writes Burke, turned the interior of their plantation home in watery St. Mary Parish into a "kaleidoscopic medieval tapestry ... 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 Caribbean-like fairyland they had inherited."
Burke doesn't stint on his trademark supernatural elements. Dave has visions of a phantom paddle boat steaming up the bayou, possibly coming to claim him. He also gets a couple of chilling warnings from Jewel, Timothy Abelard's caretaker — and daughter — who turns out to be the great-great-granddaughter of New Orleans voodoo queen Marie Laveau. As always, Burke shows an extraordinary gift for precise and earthy language. "You put scorpions in a box and shake it up, they sting everything in sight," Dave quips to longtime sidekick Clete Purcel.
Dave struggles to fit together the pieces of the puzzle in a series of seemingly linked investigations. There appears to be some sort of land swindle connected with the deaths of the girls, but likely not involving Gulf oil, the traditional motivator of the greedy. ("The money was in offshore drilling, and to my knowledge, no new refineries were being built in Louisiana," Dave muses.) And he is up against a new breed of villains, including a group of hooded "cleaners" — black ops paramilitary men hired by corporations as assassins and mercenaries to sanitize crime scenes.
The apocalyptic final pages of The Glass Rainbow unfold like the finale of a fireworks display, one fiery explosion after another in a seemingly endless display of dramatic pyrotechnics. As his novel fades to black, Burke strikes yet another mysterious note. The man knows how to keep us hooked and wanting more.