Tuesday, July 16, 2019
Heaven's Prisoners by James Lee Burke
I have a coworker who grew up in Iberia Parish LA, the setting for many of James Lee Burke’s novels. He told me that last year after I read three of Burke’s novels with great enjoyment. When I mentioned I was reading another of Burke’s books, he said, “He’s got a thing about the wives of the main character getting murdered.” That’s a fair criticism, I think. It definitely happened in this one. I’m always fenced about that trope. On the one hand, there’s not much that could make someone angrier than the murder of a loved one. On the other hand, the characters often seem to be just there to die to make the guy angry enough to drive the plot. In this case I think Dave Robicheaux’s wife is better drawn than just that, but I can see how that trope could put some people off the book. That and a suspiciously high percentage of the women in the book want to sleep with him (all three of the adult female characters who have more than a passing speaking line at least try). That’s a valid criticism of the book, but could equally apply to much of the crime genre in general. The book has a lot to offer though.
Burke is a master stylist. He has a real eye for description and an ear for dialog. These combine to give a real sense of place to his books. The cliche that the author makes you feel like you were there could have been coined for him. Burke obviously loves Louisiana and has observed it closely. I’d put his prose up there with just about anyone, and it made me want to finally visit New Orleans or LA in a way that I haven’t experienced since the novels of Walker Percy or Confederacy of Dunces.
Dave Robicheaux is a fully realized character. He is not a good person, but he knows that. He has a real need to be told that he is good, and that there is a difference between him and the criminals and corrupt officials he encounters. He actually tries to be better. He has a nuanced view of where he stands in Louisiana society as a white man and accounts for that. A recovering alcoholic, he is equally aware of what he describes as barely restrained animal that threatens to destroy him. He cannot let well enough alone. The action of the novel begins when a plane smuggling immigrants into America crashes into the river in which he’s fishing. He manages to rescue an immigrant child, which puts him on the radar of the DEA, Immigration officials and the local criminal underworld, including a childhood rival of his. There are several points at which different actions on his part could have saved people. But his anger will not let him do that. The struggle with that knowledge is the basis for a lot of the book’s emotional resonance.
I would recommend this book for the prose alone. That being said, I would recommend any of the three books I read by him last year over this: Lay Down My Sword and Shield, The Lost Get Back Boogie (nominated for the Pulitzer, if that means anything to you) and the first Robicheaux book, The Neon Rain. I’m not sure if I will eventually try to read all of his books, but I’m glad that there are so many more. I’m planning on reading Rain Gods, the sequel to Lay Down My Sword and Shield relatively soon, and it will very likely not be the last.