Cover image of "Heaven's Prisoners," a detective novel that transcends genre

Many of the very best detective novels are to be found in character-centered series tied to a particular time and place. Think Harry Bosch in Michael Connelly’s contemporary L.A. Sonchai Jitpleecheep in John Burdett’s Bangkok. Quirke in Benjamin Black’s 1950s Dublin. Inspector Thomas Lynley in Elizabeth George’s England today. I could name dozens more. These novels excel in large part because the authors have become so deeply immersed in the cultures surrounding them that they can conjure up the sights and smells and feel of their settings, wedding their protagonists to the environment in an utterly natural fashion. But rare is the detective novel that transcends genre.

In James Lee Burke’s venerable Dave Robicheaux series, the sultry and languid setting of southern Louisiana costars with the detective. Follow Robicheaux through the French Quarter and deep into the bayous, and you’ll smell the swamps, hear the birds calling, and taste the shockingly spicy food.

Heaven’s Prisoners (Dave Robicheaux #2) by James Lee Burke ★★★★★

Not that plot and substance are secondary in Burke’s writing. On the contrary, his complex plotting and Big Picture subject matter are provocative. No English drawing-room whodunits, these books! In Neon Rain, the first in the Robicheaux series, Burke took on the Iran-Contra affair and CIA complicity in the illegal drug trade to finance the Nicaraguan rebels. In Heaven’s Prisoners, the renegade detective tangles with the DEA and its infiltration of the 1980s Sanctuary Movement that enabled Salvadorans fleeing violent civil war at home to take refuge in US churches.

James Lee Burke is a serious writer whose subject matter and literary skills transcend the genre. He’s not alone in this way — the other writers I’ve cited above must have their say as well, as must others — but he’s one of the best.

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