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Heartwood

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					―Heartwood,‖ (1999), by the bestselling American mystery author James Lee Burke, was
the second in his Texas-set Billy Bob Holland series, following on the heels of
CIMARRON ROSE (1997). Like most of this series, the book, a Southern noir, police
procedural/mystery, was set in and around dusty Deaf Smith, Texas, in the hill country
north of Austin. Mind you, Texas is home country for Burke, who was born in Houston,
Texas, in 1936, and grew up on the Texas-Louisiana gulf coast in the oil business.

In these Billy Bob Holland books, we meet some characters, traveling under different
names that we see over and over again in Burke‘s books. We learn a bit about his mother
and father (who died in flames in a marine oil well accident, as did Robichaux‘s father).
The town‘s leading citizen, Earl Deitrich, rich, handsome, of ‗good family,‘ and arrogant,
with a beautiful wife and a beautiful house: a man who habitually pays no mind to the
harm his profitable enterprises cause to others. Deitrich‘s son Jeff, a truly obnoxious
unstable rich kid. Earl‘s wife Peggy Jean (nee Murphy), a former high school sweetheart
of Holland‘s—and we often see that relationship in Burke‘s books. Temple Carrol,
Holland‘s investigator, whom we will see a lot of in this series. Wilbur Pickett, the down
on his heels former rodeo rider, there‘s often a character like him around in Burke‘s
fiction. Hugo Roberts, the corrupt local sheriff. There are a bunch of grotesque Southern
characters, so typical of Southern gothic fiction: Skyler Doolittle, cornpone dude who
appears to suffer from some sexual confusion. Bubba Grimes, cornpone Southern
sadist/killer. Fletcher Grinnel, cold, ex-mercenary killer. Johnny Krause, porn producer.
Jessie Stump, a typically funny-named killer in Burke‘s pantheon, whom the author
describes as ―an armed robber, speed addict, and psychopath who shot a Mexican judge
in a courtroom, jumped through a second-story glass window, and escaped into the heart
of Mexico City.‖

Apparently, heartwood is a kind of tree, found in Texas that grows in layers. At any rate,
we meet Holland as an attorney, formerly a lawman with the Texas Rangers. Against his
better judgment, he is drawn into the case when Deitrich accuses Pickett of stealing an
heirloom watch and a hundred thousand dollars‘ worth of bearer bonds from him.

Unfortunately, to me, at least, the author in this book takes another dip into the
supernatural, as he did in ―Cimarron Rose.‖ Holland‘s former partner on the Texas
Rangers, whom he accidentally shot and killed, L.Q. Navarro, makes a regular pest of
himself, showing up to spout aphorisms all the time – though, thankfully, not as
frequently as he appears in ―Cimarron.‖ And the book‘s ending, aided by a deus ex
machina of which Burke is repeatedly fond, also comes with a silly touch of the
supernatural.

Yet, the book retains the power Burke‘s writing at its best can boast. Maybe because,
more than anything else, seems to me, he continues to give us some of the most beautiful,
knowledgeable writing ever committed to paper about the flora, fauna, geography, and
human occupants of the Gulf Coast, now so much in the news. To my mind, nobody has
ever done it better. Burke attended Southwestern Louisiana Institute; later received B. A.
and M. A. degrees from the University of Missouri in 1958 and 1960 respectively. Over
the years he worked as a landman for Sinclair Oil Company, a pipeliner, land surveyor,
newspaper reporter, college English professor, social worker on Skid Row in Los
Angeles, clerk for the Louisiana Employment Service, and instructor in the U. S. Job
Corps. His work has twice been awarded an Edgar for Best Crime Novel of the Year. He
has also been a recipient of a Breadloaf and Guggenheim Fellowship and an NEA grant.
His first novel THE LOST GET BACK BOOGIE was rejected 111 times over a period of
nine years, and upon publication by Louisiana State University press was nominated for a
Pulitzer Prize. At least eight of his novels have been New York Times bestsellers. But I,
like many other readers, much prefer his New Orleans-set Robichaux mysteries; and if
you‘re not yet acquainted with this author, I recommend you start there, rather than here.

				
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posted:1/18/2011
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