The Neon Rain Themes
by James Lee Burke

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The Neon Rain Themes

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Like many hard-boiled writers, Burke attempts to describe the world in realistic terms. To do so, Burke must first admit the essential difference between the appearance of the world and its substance, and the consequent difficulty in realistically describing a world that we have difficulty perceiving accurately. Thus, Burke seeks both to depict the real world and the difficulty in knowing, and accepting, this world. For example, the violence and deviance represented by the files assigned to Robicheaux at the beginning of the novel serve Burke as "a microcosm of an aberrant world." This view of the world continues the hard-boiled tradition, but Burke seems unsatisfied with this description, as if it oversimplifies the world he knows. The importance of dreams in The Neon Rain and others of Burke's works demonstrate his belief in a metaphysical level of existence, a belief which Robicheaux shares: "Shakespeare said that all power lies in the world of dreams, and I believe him." When Robicheaux dreams, the characters or the actions of dream have a message for him, and this level of belief foreshadows Robicheaux's interaction in later novels with the dead—including visions of his wife and father, conversations with a Confederate general, and telephone calls from a career criminal.

Throughout The Neon Rain, Burke differentiates between another two worlds—the violent world of which his files represent "a microcosm," and "the quiet world of ordinary people" that Philip Murphy invades to find out how much Robicheaux knows about his operation. In essence, Robicheaux finds both worlds at conflict in him. As a cop, he must stand in the gap between these worlds to ensure that they do not meet; his failure to prevent the one world from infecting the other represents to him the greatest possible failure. As Raymond Chandler admonished in his seminal essay on hard-boiled crime fiction, "The Simple Art of Murder": "Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid." Robicheaux considers himself tarnished—he regrets his presence in Annie's life as "a representative of a violent and unfathomable world." But the reader sees him as unafraid and faithful to his own "battered set of ethics" and trusts him to abide by these in his attempt to protect the "world of ordinary people" from the aberrations he must deal with as a law enforcement officer.

Robicheaux's goal of preventing the two worlds from meeting, however, appears problematic at best, as Burke destroys the dichotomy by demonstrating that it exists only as an illusion in the minds of those who choose not to recognize reality—all streets, in essence, are "mean streets." What begins as a humorous reference to the difference between television and "big-people land" by Clete Purcel actually illustrates the disparity between the way the world ought to be—where police respect the rights of criminals and obey the law themselves—and the world as it really exists. Here, the line between cops and robbers appears largely blurred, if it remains at all. Justice prevails in the illusory world that Robicheaux fights to protect, but "in the real world we fry paupers in the electric chair and send priests to prison for splashing chicken blood on draft files. It is the nature of ritual. We deal with the problem symbolically." Because of the normal world's basic inability to improve the aberrant one, Robicheaux chooses to "believe in the world that should be, rather than the one that exists."

The nature of ritual and symbol, of course, begs the question of God's role in these two worlds. Burke's answer seems ambiguous at best—Robicheaux attends Catholic mass regularly and believes in a "higher power," but God's role in the novel appears to be more that of mischief maker than that of redeemer or righter of wrongs. Undoubtedly, Robicheaux views humanity as a fallen race, and even accuses Wesley Potts, the proprietor of "Plato's Adult Theater," of "a serious...

(The entire section is 1,218 words.)