Book Review: The Glass Rainbow, by James Lee Burke

The Glass Rainbow, by James Lee Burke. Pocket Star Books. Simon & Schuster. ©2009. Paperback, $10.

Another great book by Burke, an amazing, captivating page-turner I hated to put down. His books wear me out; I stay up too late reading his prose.

Inside view of a barracoon, a holding chamber for incoming slaves before being sold. (from

The image (left) is of a barracoon. This particular barracoon can be found on River Street in Savannah, Georgia. A barracoon plays an important role in The Glass Rainbow. An artifact of the Slave South, a barracoon is essentially a human corral, a warehouse for humans, slaves moving between Africa, the Caribbean, the United States, and throughout Central and South America. Barracoons can be found throughout the South, and one plays a significant role in this 2009 Burke novel.

The Glass Rainbow tells the story of a collection of nefarious people working together and in spite of each other to bring Dave Robicheaux and Clete Purcell down. And by “down,” I mean six-feet-under “down.” They want Dave and Clete dead, and if Molly and Alafair are killed along the way, so be it. And, maybe, maybe we should use Alafair to get to Dave, and when we have Dave, we will have Clete, too.

Dave and Clete are not without their sins, not without their ghosts, their personal demons tied to their past lives in Vietnam tend to become stark and apparent, especially for Dave. Their poltergeist aren’t corporeal but their adversaries truly are and they want to make Dave’s and Clete’s personal lives a living hell.

Two young girls are found murdered in a neighboring parish. A pimp from Dave’s own beat, Herman Stanga, seems a likely candidate. The more Dave and Clete investigate, the less likely Stanga seems to be the perpetrator. When the pimp ends up dead, the case begins to assume a darker tone. One of the dead girls has a tie to a wealthy landowner, Timothy Abelard, a sick and elderly man himself connected to organized crime.

Abelard has a corruptible son, Kermit, who has become tight with a up-and-coming author Richard Weingart. Weingart is making a name for himself in the publishing world, writing a somewhat autobiographical account of his time in prison at Raiford, Florida.

You see how complicated things become in JLB’s novels?

If this were only as complicated as his books became, they would still be very good. But, no, life is more complicated. Dave’s daughter, Alafair, adopted at 6 years old after surviving a plane crash, is in her mid-20s in The Glass Rainbow. She is a highly intelligent young woman but can still be beguiled by handsome, intelligent men. Probably like Ted Bundy. Except in this case her beguiler is Weingart. Alafair learns an early hard lesson yet some feel she has more to learn, and her father needs to learn some lessons, as well.

As if those shady folks weren’t enough for Dave and Clete, toss in a corrupt deputy sheriff, unscrupulous managers of a non-profit, men in black SUVs, and uncooperative sheriffs in neighboring parishes and Dave and Clete seem like the only sane people in New Iberia.

Coastal Louisiana is as much a character in each book as any pimp, cretin, hooker, or nun. Geography is elemental in Burke’s stories. Swamps, bayous, and coulees are as common as people. Each has a character, a danger, a presence. The Atchafalaya Basin is “ enormous geographical composite, bigger than the Florida Everglades, containing rivers, bayous, industrial canals, flooded woods, hummocks, and wetlands that bleeds as far as the eye can see into the Gulf of Mexico.” (256) Emphasis on “bleeds,” an interesting word choice, as if the basin is a wound, seeping, bleeding into the Gulf, draining life and willpower.

Another brilliant aspect of Burke’s writing is ability to bring so many cultural nuances to his work. A lessor author may simply limit themselves to familiar cultural tropes, rich whites, poor blacks, with a supporting cast of Cajun stereotypes. Burke is unafraid of discussing the history of Louisiana, Angola, and the fascinating imbroglio of cultures found in coastal Louisiana. Located in southwest Louisiana is a unique ethnic group, the Redbones. Now, to be clear, “redbone” is also used as a racial slur among some and I am not referring to that use, nor is Burke. Burke is referencing the ethnic group. To be a Redbone, one is neither White, nor Negro, nor Indian. So, what is left, then? A Redbone is like being mulatto (part White, part Black ancestry), except a Redbone is probably part Black and part Indian, or part White and part Indian, or perhaps part Spanish and part Indian. Today, I’m not sure if Redbone is a culturally-acceptable term, if people with this ancestry self-identify as “Redbone.” As Burke points out, these people may simply see themselves as “Creole.”

I feel like even when reading fiction, one should learn something, or at the bare minimum be made curious about some aspect of the plot. I don’t mind looking up words I have forgotten the definition for. I like the places in fiction to exist; I want to dig out a map or hop on Google Maps, or Bing Maps and check places out. Burke’s novel intertwine history, geography, culture, climate and weather, even economics. The fishing industry, Big Oil, plus the underground economies of corruption, graft, and bribery are portions of all local economies.

The Glass Rainbow represents perhaps the most grievous threats Dave and Clete have ever experienced of any of the books I’ve reviewed. Dave takes his cases personally, as if each criminal has personally challenged Dave to a battle of wits upon which rests real lives. Yet, I think this novel elevates threats and life-changing circumstances to a new level.

Loved this book.

2 thoughts on “Book Review: The Glass Rainbow, by James Lee Burke

    • Hey, thank you for leaving a comment. Some novelists seem to know how to teach without seeming to teach, you know? I’m reading a Lee Child “Jack Reacher” novel now. The analogy I use with Lee is he knows how to build a really solid house, however it isn’t a particularly interesting house despite being well-crafted. It’s a liveable house, with all the anticipated appointments, with a nice touch here and there. But, it’s no Frank Lloyd Wright. Cheers!


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