Heaven’s Prisoners by James Lee Burke.

Heaven's Prisoners
Recommended for: fans of literary mystery and a tolerance for violence
Read on May 27, 2013, read count: twice
★   ★   ★   ★

When Burke writes, I see dead people. And sand sharks, and listing planes and oil-slick bubbles of air. The book opens with a small plane going down near Dave’s trawler, and Dave and his wife Annie checking for survivors. Its a vivid scene.

This is the second book starring Dave Robicheaux, described by a local stripper as “I know you were a good cop and all that bullshit,’ she said, ‘but there’s a lot of stuff you guys never see. You can’t. You don’t live in it, Streak. You’re a visitor.” Unfortunately for Dave, he’s about to take an extended vacation.

Burke challenges me; as a writer new to me, I haven’t get been able to predict where he is going or how he’ll get there. The first book had a strong level of violence, not merely implied, but described, and not merely murders, but torture. I don’t like to go to those places, which lends itself to reading distraction; putting the book down and walking away. But its a hard-fought distraction and I always find myself returning to his vividly created world.

I enjoy Burke’s descriptions; the lush world-building of southern Louisiana, past and present. But in this story it gets a little lost, and Burke can’t quite keep his focus tight enough on the plot. This is, perhaps, one of the ways Burke and Lawrence Block, of Matt Scudder fame, differ; while Block is able to build a solid feel for period New York City, he doesn’t lose focus on the mystery. In this case, the true focus is Dave Robicheaux, the detective, and his ability to wrestle with the demons that drive him. “I wondered if I would ever exorcise the alcoholic succubus that seemed to live within me, its claws hooked into my soul.” But he knows “I was not simply a drunk. I was drawn to a violent and aberrant world the way a vampire bat seeks a black recess within the earth.” I like it, a lot, but it isn’t my normal escapist fiction. The story driver is Dave himself, and his inability to turn the other cheek, so to speak, and his attraction to the violence. At one point, it is nailed quite nicely when someone says, “You know what your problem is? You’re two people in the same envelope. You want to be a moral man in an amoral business. At the same time you want to blow up their shit just like the rest of us.”

There’s lines I just loved: “I walked into the confessional and waited for the priest… I had known him for twenty-five years, and I trusted his working-class instincts and forgave him his excess of charity and lack of admonition, just as he forgave me for my sins.”

And a very powerful thought for those in public safety:
“The truth was that I enjoyed it, that I got high on my knowledge of man’s iniquity, that I disdained the boredom and predictability of the normal world as much as my strange alcoholic metabolism loved the adrenaline rush of danger and my feeling of power over an evil world that in many ways was mirrored in microcosm in my own soul.” Heady stuff for a mystery-thriller, and one that bears thinking on.

I also admire Burke’s acknowledgement of political events and how it continues to effect Robicheaux’s life today: “Why did Dave Robicheaux have to impose all this order and form on his life? So you lose control and total out for a while, I thought. The U.S. Army certainly understood that. You declare a difficult geographical and political area a free-fire zone, than you stand up later in the drifting ash and the smell of napalm and define with much more clarity the past nature of the problem.”

I understand both Burke and Robicheaux’s preoccupation with the culture of their childhood, time past, with seeing an entire way of life slowly slip into the mud. For both of them, there were negative aspects–Burke is quick to acknowledge the racism–but also good things, particularly of a time when the moral code felt more straightforward. That’s the illusion of childhood, of course, and perhaps by the end Dave realizes that as well.

Still, as a genre reader, this strays a bit too far into Southern gothic literary fiction for my pleasure, although it is a taste that’s growing on me. While I like the tour of Louisiana, I would have preferred a stronger balance between the mystery and the character turmoil; a little more outward focus and a little less inward. Still, no one can say that Burke doesn’t breathe life into his setting and characters; I felt like I’d know most of them on the street (not that I’d likely wander down those particular streets) and be able to find my way to his tour boat. Food especially–this time it’s fresh seafood, roadside strawberries and ice cream (the first book it was po’boys and Dr. Pepper with limes and cherry juice). Now I have a food craving.

And boy, can this guy ever write. Not really a comfortable story, and it feels a little screenplay ready. But ultimately enjoyable and complex enough to rate it an above-average read.

About thebookgator

avid reader and Goodreads reviewer looking for a home.
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1 Response to Heaven’s Prisoners by James Lee Burke.

  1. Pingback: Book Review: Feast Day of Fools, by James Lee Burke | Constant Geography

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