Heartwood by James Lee Burke

I wrote an item months ago suggesting that genre writers in general, taking crime as a good example, are still undervalued by the literary critics and academics, and by extension by most readers. Then I was especially talking about Lawrence Block, but it applies every bit as much to James Lee Burke.

Don’t read him for mysteries and puzzles. Heartwood has one good twist late on, but mostly the payoff is a bit dull, almost perfunctory. What’s great about his writing is the characters and prose. Few writers create more of a range of characters with distinct sets of emotions and motives and ways of thinking. A lot of them are memorable and powerful and scary too, all in their own different ways. I think he beats out Elmore Leonard at this, another crime writer very good at setting a load of strong characters in motion without offering clear dividing lines between the good guys and the heels. Burke also has the Ross Macdonald strength of centring plots on long-established relationships, important to the key characters, if not quite with Macdonald’s focus on family tragedies.

But I think his prose is even better. A lot of it is clear and straightforward, almost casual in tone, a narrative voice that sounds as if some ordinary person, not a novelist with literary intent, is telling you what happened, but what shines out in particular is his gorgeous and hugely evocative setting of scenes, especially outdoors. He calls up landscapes (one series of tales in Texas, another outside New Orleans) as well as anyone I can think of, not just within genre writing. I’m not setting him up as a new Faulkner or anything like that, but I’ve read countless respected and award-winning literary novels without anything like Burke’s strength in creating people or with his prose quality. Why do writers this good never get a look in when the award nominations appear, for instance?