Heaven’s Prisoners by James Lee Burke
Regular readers of these book reviews would be forgiven for thinking that Rebel Voice is the love-child of James Lee, such is the proliferation of his novels and the strong praise for them. I would like to assure all readers that this site has no connections to the US author, nor has Rebel Voice ever performed a sexual act upon old Jamesy, and wouldn’t even if he asked or offered free signed copies of all his fine books. Keep your old knob away from Rebel Voice Burke, you chancer.
This is book 2 in the Dave Robicheaux series. Rebel Voice has engaged upon a twisting journey through the life of the Louisiana cop, moving forward and back as the books arrived. In Heaven’s Prisoners, readers will get a better sense of the traumatic events that helped shape Robicheaux’s life. It is also the instalment where we first get to meet Dave’s adopted daughter, Alafair.
Dave and his wife of two years, Annie, are out on the bayou fishing when they see a small plane crash. Racing to the scene, Dave dives down to the sunken wreck and discovers four adults, all drowned. He also finds a six year old Guatemalan girl paddling furiously to stay afloat in the craft where her face is in a quickly diminishing air-pocket.
Robicheaux manages to save the distraught child, and Annie and he take the young girl home. Although they have reported the accident to the authorities, they neglect to mention the little girl, who Dave names Alafair, as they have concerns about her being institutionalized or deported.
When the Feds contact Dave about the drowning victims, they have reduced the number of dead by one male. Dave smells something fishy – other than the shrimp that he always seems to be feasting on – and begins an ill-fated investigation of his own.
It’s difficult to elaborate on Robicheaux’s inquiries without spoiling the plot. Suffice to say, Dave, who is retired from New Orleans homicide division in this episode (and is an alcoholic), soon learns that he has opened a very large and dangerous can of worms, and these particular wriggly, squirming creatures have very sharp teeth indeed.
In order to better conduct his investigation, Dave joins the New Iberia Police Department for the first time, a role that he embraces in later novels. He runs up against an old boyhood nemesis, Bubba Rocque, and his over-sexed and mentally deranged wife, Claudette. There is also the small matter of federal involvement in Central American terrorism and coups, as well as their employing of sociopathic agents such as Victor Romero. Poor Robicheaux has also to contend with the hostile attentions of Toot, a former tonton macoute from Haiti, who Donald Trump would just love. The bold Toot is a psychopath and sadistic serial killer. He is also an accomplice of Eddie Keats, yet another crazy killer, this time from Brooklyn. No doubt Trump would love Keats also. Would a wall keep such individuals out? Anyhow, Dave Robicheaux sure knows how to pick fights with the wrong sort.
Heaven’s Prisoners is a masterfully woven story with an abundance of interesting characters, all of whom remain consistent throughout. The one criticism, and Rebel Voice has highlighted this throughout its reviews of the Robicheaux series, is Dave’s nonchalance regarding the threats he faces and the nature and capabilities of those who would see him dead. This laissez faire attitude to imminent danger results in catastrophic consequences for Robicheaux in Heaven’s Prisoners, yet he doesn’t appear to learn from it for later life and novels. Tut tut, Mr Burke.
As always, the settings are stunning. Burke’s depictions of the life and landscape of southern Louisiana are vivid and evocative. His prose is poetry in large parts and is a joy to behold. His writing is so good as to make his flaws with Robicheaux’s behaviour almost unnoticeable. Almost.
There is no Clete Purcell in Heaven’s Prisoners. Clete adds to every book he’s in. Yet this is still a very, very good book. As is his SOP, James Lee Burke has much to say about the deterioration in social standards across the US. He also slams the conduct of the Federal government and its agencies. Each Burke novel is an education in southern Louisianan history, culture and society, as well as a critique upon the failures of the US system of government and those who regularly attain power under such a corrupted system.
Burke writes on behalf of the ordinary man and woman of the US, whilst offering apologies to those around the world who have also suffered at the hands of the callous plutocracy. The circumstances surrounding six year old Alafair are a good example of Burke’s strong feelings about the murderous schemes of his own government. What a pity the James Lee Burke’s of the US do not run the country. It would be a much better and fairer place to live for such official input.
Interestingly, there is a tendency among many US authors to question the behaviour of their government, whilst still supporting the regular cops and officials of the various states and counties. It does appear as if there is an increasing lack of faith in the Federal system. Rebel Voice wonders how this will play out a little further down the line. Any government that loses the trust of its people, will have to either let go entirely or squeeze evermore tightly. The current administration appears to be applying greater pressure to the stranglehold that they have upon the citizenry of the United States.
In Heaven’s Prisoners, Dave Robicheaux, a Vietnam veteran states:
‘In the glow of the movie screen I looked at Alafair’s upraised and innocent face and wondered about the victims of greed and violence and political insanity all over the world. I have never believed that their suffering is accidental or a necessary part of the human condition. I believe it is the direct consequence of corporate avarice, the self-serving manipulations of politicians who wage war but never serve in them themselves, and, perhaps worse, the indifference of those of us who know better.’
The apathy of the good majority is killing us all, as the Surplass are permitted to ply their sordid wares across our world.
Heaven’s Prisoners is a solidly entertaining novel. It has a fast pace, vibrant plot and haunting morality. It is a key to understanding the Robicheaux that we encounter further down the Louisiana line, as well as an introduction to Alafair who comes to prominence in later stories. Don’t miss out on Heaven’s Prisoners.
Sult scale rating: 8.5 out of 10. Highly recommended and, if your first Robicheaux novel, will prove a mighty incentive to read the rest.