James Lee Burke,
(Doubleday, 1999)

Heartwood finds attorney and former Texas Ranger Billy Bob Holland defending luckless ex-bullrider Wilbur Pickett, who has been accused of stealing from Earl Dietrich, the wealthiest man in Deaf Smith, Texas.

Billy Bob has his own history with Earl's wife, Peggy; they were briefly an item shortly after he graduated from high school, and he has carried a torch for her ever since. These old feelings make him reluctant to get involved in the case, but as a rising tide of deceit and violence begins to threaten not only Wilbur Pickett and his wife, but Billy Bob's loved ones as well, he finds he has no choice.

As is the case in some of Burke's mysteries featuring Louisiana policeman Dave Robicheaux, the Byzantine plot structure sometimes threatens to overwhelm Heartwood. Earl Dietrich turns out to be connected to everything from a Mexican-American street gang to Belgian slavers in Africa.

Furthermore, much of Billy Bob's motivation stems from his past relationship with Peggy Dietrich. The problem is, Burke fails to make Peggy as overwhelmingly attractive to the reader as she is to Billy Bob. In fact, she bears an unfortunate resemblance to another small town Texas rich girl, Jacey from Larry McMurtry's The Last Picture Show.

Fortunately, Burke's strengths are also on display in Heartwood. Burke's sense of place never fails him, and his descriptions of Billy Bob's Texas hill country are almost as evocative as his portrayal of Dave Robicheaux's Louisiana bayou.

Burke is also one of the best we have at showing the effects of violence, both on the victims and the perpetrators. Billy Bob is haunted, both figuratively and literally, by the ghost of his Texas Rangers partner, L.Q. Navarro, whom Billy Bob accidentally killed during a vigilante raid on some Mexican drug dealers. Navarro's ghost acts as Billy Bob conscience, but also tempts him to solve his problems the way he knows best: by using force. Burke seems to understand the seductive nature of violence better than anyone else writing today.

Some may argue that Billy Bob Holland is merely Dave Robicheaux with a Texas accent. I say, so what? James Lee Burke spends part of the year in Missoula; I, for one, would welcome yet another series set in Montana.

[ by Chris Simmons ]