Book: Heartwood

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Author: James Lee Burke
Publisher: Doubleday

A brilliantly layered novel of crime, character, and place from the two-time Edgar Award winner, Gold Dagger Award winner, and New York Times bestselling author of Sunset Limited.

Few writers in America today combine James Lee Burke’s lush prose, crackling story lines, and tremendous sense of history and landscape. In Cimmaron Rose, longtime fans of the Dave Robicheaux series found that the struggles of Texas defense attorney Billy Bob Holland show Burke at his best in exploring classic American themes—the sometimes subtle, often violent strains between the haves and the have-nots; the collision of past and present; the inequities in the criminal justice system.

Heartwood is a kind of tree that grows in layers. And as Billy Bob’s grandfather once told him, you do well in life by keeping the roots in a clear stream and not letting anyone taint the water for you. But in Holland’s dusty little hometown of Deaf Smith, in the hill country north of Austin, local kingpin Earl Deitrich has made a fortune running roughshod and tainting anyone who stands in his way. Billy Bob has problems with Deitrich and his shamelessly callous demeanor, but can’t shake the legacy of his passion for Deitrich’s “heartbreak-beautiful” wife, Peggy Jean.

When Holland takes on the defense of Wilbur Pickett—a man accused of stealing an heirloom and three hundred thousand dollars in bonds from Deitrich’s office—he finds himself up against not only Earl’s power and influence, but also a past Billy Bob can’t will away. A wonderfully realized novel, rich in Texas atmosphere and lore, and a dazzling portrait of the deadly consequences of self-delusion, Heartwood could only have been written by James Lee Burke, a writer in expert command of his craft.


Whether he’s writing about the Louisiana Bayou Country (in his Dave Robicheaux books) or the Texas hill towns around Austin (in his series about former Texas ranger Billy Bob Holland), James Lee Burke has deep roots in the American soil that link him to some of the great adventure writers of the past such as Jack London and Mark Twain. Like them, Burke writes novels illustrating how failure shapes a man much more than success does.

Central to Burke’s second Billy Bob novel (Cimarron Rose was his first) is Wilbur Pickett. Wilbur had a brief moment of glory as a rodeo cowboy before sliding into a downward cycle of luckless enterprises. He ends up laboring for a wealthy family, the Dietrichs, in the Texas town of Deaf Smith. The Dietrichs accuse Wilbur of stealing some bearer bonds, and Billy Bob—now a defense attorney—reluctantly take his case. He is hesitant (because he idolizes Peggy Jean Dietrich), and for good reason: Billy Bob discovers that her husband Earl may be involved in shady, even violent, business practices.

Other ghosts from the past also haunt Billy Bob: he accidentally killed his former partner on a drug raid in Mexico and still hears his voice. And then there’s Holland’s illegitimate son Lucas, who is growing up with problems of his own. The weight of all this back-story might overwhelm a lesser writer, but Burke manages to make it seem as natural as the soft wind that stirs the tumbleweed in the town of Deaf Smith. —Dick Adler

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Two years ago, James Lee Burke published , an unexpected departure from his popular Dave Robicheaux series—to my mind, the best long-running series of suspense novels in recent American fiction. The change, expected or not, was obviously beneficial: Cimarron Rose became a national bestseller and went on to win the Mystery Writers of America’s Edgar Award as Best Novel of 1997.

In Cimarron Rose—and in its newly published sequel, Heartwood—Burke has shifted his focus from the bayou country of Louisiana to the fictional small town of Deaf Smith, Texas, and has replaced Dave Robicheaux with the equally angst-ridden Billy Bob Holland, a defense attorney and former Texas Ranger who carries with him a host of personal demons, a large measure of unresolved guilt, and an extreme, barely repressed capacity for violence. As anyone familiar with the Robichaux series will realize, these are the classic characteristics of a James Lee Burke hero.

Heartwood also invokes a classic James Lee Burke theme: the poisoning of the American heartland by the forces of ignorance, brutality, expediency, and greed. In Heartland, these forces are embodied by Earl Deitrich, the richest and most desperate man in Deaf Smith. Deitrich—who is married to the first great love of Billy Bob Holland’s life, the beautiful and unattainable Peggy Jean Murphy—has managed to squander, leverage, or gamble away the lion’s share of a family fortune that an earlier generation of Deitrichs acquired by trafficking in the diamond mines oftheBelgian Congo and by enslaving and exploiting the Congo’s native population. Earl Deitrich, in conjunction with a local Mexican-American youth gang called the Purple Hearts, has resorted to a sleazy series of scams in order to maintain his accustomed cash flow: enticing friends and business acquaintances into high-stakes poker games, which are then held up at gunpoint; torching his own vacant building in downtown Houston, an act that results in the deaths of four firemen; and accusing a down-on-his-luck ex-rodeo star of robbery, then presenting his insurance company with a vastly inflated claim for the stolen items.

Set against Deitrich and his various schemes is embattled defense attorney Billy Bob Holland, who is forced to contend, simultaneously, with a number of related issues: the depredations of Deitrich’s son Jeff, a teenaged sociopath with deep-seated sexual problems and a pronounced sadistic tendency; his residual feelings for the still beautiful, still unattainable Peggy Jean Deitrich; his difficult relationship with his illegitimate son, Lucas; and his own long-standing propensity for meeting violence with violence. As the story progresses and the tension between opposing forces steadily increases, the atmosphere in Deaf Smith gradually ignites in a series of explosions that leave several people dead and which climax with a hallucinatory encounter between father and son, an encounter that ends the local domination of the Deitrich family in an ironic, and tragic, fashion.

Despite its relatively new venue, Heartwood is immediately recognizable as the work of James Lee Burke. It is, first of all, a densely observed book, filled, in typical Burke fashion, with amazingly detailed portraits of the people, places, and things that, taken together, make up the world of Deaf Smith, Texas. Burke, as always, misses nothing. His sense of place is nothing short of astonishing, and his evocation of the beauties of the natural world—in this case, the hill country north of Austin—is powerful, poetic, and absolutely convincing.

Like so much of Burke’s earlier work, Heartwood is also a novel in which the lovingly detailed physical world is constantly interpenetrated by the world of the spirit, a world in which ghosts speak, psychic visions reveal hidden truths, and the door between different levels of reality occasionally swings open. Burke has always managed this delicate balancing act with great resourcefulness (see In the Electric Mist with Confederate Dead for a particularly striking example of this tendency), and Heartwood continues this idiosyncratic tradition in typical high style.

With two Billy Bob Holland novels under his belt, Burke has effectively launched an alternate series of suspense novels that may well rival the Robicheaux books in both quality and popularity. Heartwood, like the novels that preceded it, is the work of a real writer, a man with a dark, sorrowful vision of a violent, self-destructive society. It confirms James Lee Burke’s position as one of the preeminent crime novelists of late-20th-century America.—Bill Sheehan

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