Lesley Atherton’s Review of ‘Heaven’s Prisoners’ by James Lee Burke

The protagonist of James Lee Burke’s ‘Heaven’s Prisoners’ is a man called Dave Robicheaux. He sounds a good guy who is trying to put a ‘life of violence and crime behind him, leaving homicide to run a boat-rental business in Louisiana’s bayou country.’

So, that’s all well and good. Potentially interesting, even.

Within the first few pages we read of Dave who is out fishing with his wife, Annie, and how they observe a small plane crashing into the sea. It isn’t long before Dave dives to the wreckage and finds four bodies and a little girl, barely alive.

At this point I was still thinking I might enjoy the book. After all, the first few pages set a colourful scene of bayou fishing and Louisiana life, but things quickly went downhill. The largest part of this novel was truly awful. Of the 350 pages in this edition, I found only 25 or so in any way compelling…

Why?

Problem #1 – Sex

The film of the book was described as an ‘erotic thriller’ and it is obvious within a few pages of beginning the book that that the reader would be subjected to more than the average number of sex scenes.  To be fair, those scenes aren’t badly written, but there are far too many. Also, they are relatively tasteful, but not at all erotic!

Problem #2 – So Dated

Though the book was written in the 1980s, the style and language of the writing were far more reminiscent of the early 20th century, say the period between the 30s to 50s. I wish I could say that I enjoyed the dated feel as generally I do love early 20th century work, but it was irritating. Almost offensive.

Problem #3 – The Race Issue & Lazy Writing

I don’t think I’ve read another book where the writer thinks it is adequate to simply describe person after person as ‘Negro’ – as if that is the only character point of any relevance. I would definitely have preferred to hear how white sweat drops dropped onto a black man’s skin while he did something or said something, rather than hearing yet another simple telling that there was a ‘Negro man’ over there. Within two chapters I was getting VERY annoyed. Within four, I was bored. And I’m a person who NEVER gets bored.†

Problem #4 – Cliched Seediness

Most of the book is about revenge, low-life people, drinking, drugs, crime, murder, whoring and eating. Sigh.

Problem #5 – Pointlessly Complex Yet Far Too Simplistic

The book begins with a crashed plane, but the plot (such as it is) soon deviates from this. It should have been the focal issue, yet instead served merely as an introduction, and as a way of bringing a little girl Alafair (who was largely irrelevant to the story) into the life of Dave.  Instead we get plots and sub-plots, wonderings, erratic action and pointless crimes. None of these seem to drive the story forward, instead just confuse the reader. Despite the plot’s meanderings, the writing style was far too simplistic and regularly incorporated a ‘the sky was blue’ feel which was deeply unsatisfying to the reader.

In Summary

‘Heaven’s Prisoners’ – I’m not even sure I understand where it got its name. Neither writing nor story were heavenly and my attention was at no point held captive.

I was utterly gobsmacked to discover it had been regarded so highly that it was made into a film. One word comes most readily to mind – ‘Why?’

In short, ‘Heaven’s Prisoners’ was dated, dull and not at all deep. The front cover made a tasty snack for my guinea pig, and that’s the best I can say about the book and its contents.

#lesleyfridayreads

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