There is good news and bad news for the legion of readers who are fans of James Lee Burke. The good news is that his new novel, HEARTWOOD, returns us to Deaf Smith, Texas, home of defense attorney and ex-Texas Ranger Billy Bob Holland. The bad news is that HEARTWOOD is not 700 pages long. It is a book which is so good, so intricate, so shining an example of a master wordsmith at the top of his game, that the reader will want it to go on and on.
Burke of course could have rested on his laurels with annual visits to New Iberia, Louisiana and Dave Robicheaux. Books such as CADILLAC JUKEBOX and the award-winning BLACK CHERRY BLUES attracted new readers while leaving those who had been with him since the beginning hungry for more. Burke, however, was not content to coast, and in 1997 introduced Billy Bob Holland to the literary landscape with CIMMARON ROSE. And to positive critical reaction. CIMMARON ROSE was awarded the Edgar Award for Best Novel, making Burke one of only two writers to win that award more than once. After returning to New Iberia in 1998 with the brilliant SUNSET LIMITED, Burke gives us HEARTWOOD, a complex, violent, and ultimately beautiful novel about unrequited love, honor and pride in rural Texas.
The ultimate attraction of any of Burke's novels is his ability to combine powerful description with sharp characterization. HEARTWOOD is no exception. HEARTWOOD finds Billy Bob Holland drawn into the affairs of Earl Dietrich, a local millionaire who is a huge and hungry shark in a very small pond. Holland, while in high school, was for one of those brief moments which seem to stretch into forever involved with Peggy Jean Murphy, a beauty queen who is now Earl's wife. Holland is called upon to defend local failure Wilbur Pickett, who is accused of stealing bearer bonds and a priceless antique from Dietrich. But more is involved here than theft. Dietrich wants something from Pickett. But what could the town's richest man possibly want from the town's biggest loser? Holland must unravel the mystery. But it won't be easy. Everyone --- and I mean EVERYONE --- has conflicting motives, and everyone is lying, either to themselves or to each other.
Burke, as always, has an exquisite eye for detail, and is a student of the intricacies of relationships of the heart. Holland's relationships with Lucas Smothers, his illegitimate son, and with Temple Carrol, his investigator (whose unrequited love for Holland is incredibly well played out here) are also given room to stretch and grow, with hints of more to come. And fans of Burke's Dave Robicheaux should not despair of his absence, hopefully temporary. For Holland and Robicheaux are twin sons of different mothers: Good, flawed men trying to do the right thing in a dangerous, violent world.
HEARTWOOD is the ultimate James Lee Burke novel; the work of a master who continues to raise the bar of his own expectations and to exceed them. He has again bestowed upon us a novel deserving of awards and accolades. It is, like the best of his work, a novel to be read and reread while waiting for his next.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on July 10, 2000
Heartwood (Billy Bob Boy Howdy)