Heaven’s Prisoners

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Trouble literally drops from the sky for Robicheaux, hero of James Lee Burke’s well-received thriller THE NEON RAIN. He had thought he could leave crime, killers, and maybe even the remembered violence of Vietnam behind him when he married Annie. Instead, his unofficial investigation of a downed plane and its passengers will cost him his wife, shot in their marriage bed. It will also bring him a child, pulled from the plane, and the bitter knowledge that he will never be able forever to say goodbye to a dirty past, to drink, or to the equivocal and compulsive drive of detective investigation itself.

HEAVEN’S PRISONERS is half of a very good novel. Up to its midpoint it manages its eclectic mix of Cajun atmosphere and Louisiana memories, nature-watch, set pieces of violence and wisecracking private-investigator maneuverings, and marital love scenes with flamboyant skill. After the murder of Robicheaux’s wife, however, the novel develops problems not only of emotional tone (within pages he is making love with a stripper friend, maybe not in the same bed but certainly in the same style) but also of balance and interest--the ratio of detection to reflection goes awry, and the novel gets bogged down in those bayous until it starts to read more like a sleazy Baedecker than the vivid investigation of a corrupted society and a corrupted soul that it aspires to be.

Nevertheless, HEAVEN’S PRISONERS is detective fiction at its best when it embraces the conventions of its genre.