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07 December 2013

James Lee Burke: Heaven's Prisoners (Dave Robicheaux Mysteries)

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A compelling and intelligent thriller
Recently I told an author friend of mine that I was numbed by the poor quality of recent thrillers I had read and he told me to "read something by James Lee Burke - the man's a master". That was great advice. Burke doesn't write your normal type of crime thriller, he is a fabulous storyteller and a master of prose who writes stories of literary quality full of great characters, violent emotions with almost poetic descriptions of the landscapes where the action happens. 

Dave Robicheaux has retired from a long career as a homicide detective and is running a boat, bait and food business catering for tourists to the bayou area of southern Louisiana. He is very happy in his new marriage to Annie and is winning his long and hard battle with alcohol. Dave and Annie are on their boat one day trawling for shrimp when a small plane crashes nearby. Dave saves a six-year-old girl's life but her mother and three other people in the plane perish. Annie looks after the small girl who can only speak Spanish and names her Alifair, after Dave's mother.

When the police search the plane they only find three bodies. One man was missing. Dave remembered him clearly, he wore a pink shirt which had been ripped in the crash to show a tattoo over one nipple and his neck was broken. As usual Dave couldn't leave this alone and it  unleashes the devils of gang vengeance which strike at Dave and his family.

This is a dark story which is sometimes violent and faces up to the despair of loss and the demons of alcohol. It is also very philosophical about life and its dangers and weaknesses, which is rare in a thriller. I found parts of the book both compassionate and tear-jerking.

I strongly recommend this book as one of the most compelling and intelligent thrillers I have read for some time. This is the first of Burke's novels that I have read and it won't be the last. I will especially remember his vivid descriptions of the Louisiana bayou where I could almost smell the water, the moss, the trees and the flowers that Burke so loves. Another author who does this so well is the great Pat Conroy with his landscapes of the Carolina wetlands.

While this book was written in 1988, well before Hurricane Katrina, Burke may have had a premonition of the future when he felt a big storm building up and quoted the lyrics of this song - "Don't come `round tonight, it's bound to take your life. A bad moon's on the rise, I hear hurricane's a blowing, I know the end is coming soon, I feel the river overflowing, I can hear the voice of rage and ruin."

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