I just picked up my first James Lee Burke novel at a paperback sale. I opened it just to try out the first paragraph and ended up spending most of my Sunday deep inside the pages of Heartwood. Burke's protagonist, Billy Bob Holland, reminds me a lot of Lew Archer as he narrates this story of human greed, violence, and fear played out against the backdrop of Deaf Smith, Texas--a hilly, hot terrain which hides a lot of secrets.
Like Archer, Billy Bob is a brooding man with secrets of his own, and a lot of regret. The tone of the story is not so much dark as sad, as Billy Bob is consistently forced to acknowledge the darkness in other people's souls as well as in his own. He is consistently haunted by the ghost (at least figuratively) of his late best friend, L.Q. Navarro, once a Texas Ranger with Billy Bob, and whom Billy Bob killed by accident.
The mystery, however, revolves around a corrupt, rich local man named Earl Dietrich and his no-good son Jeff, who pretty much have Deaf Smith, Texas completely under their control. But they can't control Billy Bob; complicating matters is the fact that Peggy Jean Dietrich, Earl's wife, was Billy Bob's first love, and there's a part of him that cannot let that go, a part of his brain that goes soft the minute he lets himself reflect on the fact that "she smells like roses."
The title, Heartwood, symbolizes the novel's theme, and Burke hints at it early on, as Billy Bob remembers a conversation with his father: "Heartwood," my father said. "They grow in layers, like the spirit does. That's what Grandpa Sam used to say, anyway. You just got to keep the roots in a clear stream and not let anybody taint the water for you." Heartwood, therefore, is the hardest wood in existence, tough enough to withstand the blows of an ax. Or, if this is a metaphor for Billy Bob and the Texas he loves, the blows of life.
I was moved by Heartwood and unable to put it down, and only when my husband yelled at me for having a light on at 1:00 in the morning did I reluctantly close it. What a terrific read. I will certainly be reading more by James Lee Burke.