Coming into 2013, one of my goals was to re-read James Lee Burke’s entire Dave Robicheaux series, capping off the year by reading Creole Belle (2012) for the first time. That’s 19 books in all and I’m already way behind, so it probably will not happen exactly that way. But I have just finished Heaven’s Prisoners, the second book in the series, one I consider to be a key book in the set.
Dave is long gone from the New Orleans Police Department now (although he can’t seem to stay out of that city), and has returned to New Iberia, his hometown. He is newly married to his second wife and the two are running their own bait and tackle shop there. It is a perfect life for Dave, something he was born to and does well – if his past, and his white knight self-image, will just allow him to get on with it.
Dave can’t win, though. One day, while he is fishing on the Louisiana Gulf with Annie, they watch a small, two-engine plane crash into nearby waters. The plane passes so close to the boat before slamming hard into the water that Dave has a clear view of the terrified faces looking out the plane’s windows. Strapping on a pair of near-empty air tanks, Dave hits the water in hopes of rescuing some of the passengers. And, largely thanks to the heroic efforts of a little girl’s mother, Dave manages to get the child out of the plane in time to save her life. No one else survives.
|James Lee Burke
Dave saw some things in the sunken plane he should not, for his own good, have seen. After one of the bodies in the plane is left unaccounted for in the official account of the accident, Dave starts asking questions. Some very powerful people want him to shut up – and Dave knows that he should. But Dave, being Dave, can’t do that. He wants the truth, and he is willing to risk everything he has (and loses much of it before this one is over) to find it.
Heaven’s Prisoners is an important Dave Robicheaux book because the little girl Dave rescues becomes Alafair Robicheaux, the only child Dave will ever have, and 17 books later she is still one of the most important people in his world – and in the series. It is not easy growing up Dave Robicheaux’s kid, but the little Central American girl who almost died entering the country illegally will thrive and become a fan favorite over the years.
Next up in the series is Book Three, Black Cherry Blues.
The Neon Rain, James Lee Burke’s introduction of Cajun cop Dave Robicheaux to crime fiction readers is even better than I remembered it to be. It has been more than twenty years since I first read this first one, but Dave Robicheaux books have been a regular part of my reading life ever since that first exposure to Dave’s world. There are now nineteen books in the series (I hope Burke is hard at work on number twenty), and I have read all but the latest of them almost as soon as they were published. I was immediately and permanently hooked, and now I remember why.
The plot of The Neon Rain is rather straightforward: a New Orleans detective learns from a death row inmate that someone has placed a contract on his life and starts nosing around to see if there is anything to the rumor. In the process of trying to pin names and motives to the potential hit, our detective inadvertently makes some powerful people – on both sides of the law – very nervous. Lt. Robicheaux, it seems, has almost as many enemies within the New Orleans P.D. as he does outside it. He also has a huge drinking problem and a strong commitment to making the bad guys pay for their crimes, both of which are about to make his life hell.
The real strength of the Dave Robicheaux series is Burke’s talent for creating characters his readers want to know more about. They are not always likeable, but they are always interesting. Even some of the characters we do like, especially Robicheaux and his longtime partner Clete Purcell, are flawed almost beyond redemption. But amidst all the chaos and ugliness, Dave Robicheaux creates a family, stays in love with his wife, raises the little girl he plucked from the bottom of a lake, and tries to keep his best friend from self-destructing. Oh, and along the way, he solves a lot of brutal murders, puts a bunch of bad guys away (sometimes without witnesses), and looks out for a whole lot of people who are not capable of doing it for themselves. If ever Southwestern Louisiana had a white knight, his name was Dave Robicheaux.
The Neon Rain tells us that Dave is a Vietnam veteran still plagued with bad dreams and other symptoms of PTSS, that he has a fifteen-month younger half-brother who makes his living just over the edge of what is legal, that he went to college in Lafayette (home of the Raging Cajuns), that he is always one drink away from his next bender, and that his wife left him for a Houston oilman. But this imperfect life is only the point that readers climb on to Dave’s story, an introduction to a character whose life will be a series of extraordinary peaks and valleys for another twenty books are so. And, as Dave closes the book on his career with the New Orleans cops, we are going to be lucky enough to go along for the ride.