(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

James Lee Burke is best known for a series of novels centered on Dave Roibicheux set in Louisiana bayou country, but Heartwood is part of a second series Burke is building around Billy Bob Holland, a lawyer in the small Texas town of Deaf Smith, in the hill country north of Austin. The scene may be different, but the mystery and violence remain.

Heartwood involves one of the wealthiest families in town. Peggy Jean Deitrich was briefly Holland’s lover years ago, but now she is the wife of a man who may be behind the violent crime flooding the town. When Holland agrees to defend Wilbur Picket against Earl Deitrich, criminals pop up everywhere to stop him. The town may be small, but there are an incredible number of psychopaths walking its street and trying to harm its residents.

What places Burke a peg above most writers of crime fiction in the United States are his vivid characterization and atmosphere. Billy Bob is a man who tries to live by his code, but who is often pushed beyond it. He is also haunted by his ex-Texas Ranger partner, L. Q. Navarro, whom Holland accidentally shot some years before in a vigilante raid into Mexico. But Holland’s are not the only nightmares. Picket’s wife is blind and her Cheyenne visions foretell the violent actions of the novel—but not soon enough to stop them.

In its Texas setting, the novel may remind readers of John Sayles’s film, Lone Star (1996), or Larry McMurtry’s The Last Picture Show (1966). Like Tony Hillerman’s novels of the American Southwest, finally, Heartwood has a complex core of interesting characters who compel readers’ attention.