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Heartwood (Billy Bob Holland Series #2)

Heartwood (Billy Bob Holland Series #2)

3.9 11
by James Lee Burke

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A brilliantly layered novel of crime, character, and place from the two-time Edgar Award winner, Gold Dagger Award winner, and New York Times bestselling author of Sunset Limited.

Few writers in America today combine James Lee Burke's lush prose, crackling story lines, and tremendous sense of history and landscape. In Cimmaron Rose,


A brilliantly layered novel of crime, character, and place from the two-time Edgar Award winner, Gold Dagger Award winner, and New York Times bestselling author of Sunset Limited.

Few writers in America today combine James Lee Burke's lush prose, crackling story lines, and tremendous sense of history and landscape. In Cimmaron Rose, longtime fans of the Dave Robicheaux series found that the struggles of Texas defense attorney Billy Bob Holland show Burke at his best in exploring classic American themes—the sometimes subtle, often violent strains between the haves and the have-nots; the collision of past and present; the inequities in the criminal justice system.

Heartwood is a kind of tree that grows in layers. And as Billy Bob's grandfather once told him, you do well in life by keeping the roots in a clear stream and not letting anyone taint the water for you. But in Holland's dusty little hometown of Deaf Smith, in the hill country north of Austin, local kingpin Earl Deitrich has made a fortune running roughshod and tainting anyone who stands in his way. Billy Bob has problems with Deitrich and his shamelessly callous demeanor, but can't shake the legacy of his passion for Deitrich's "heartbreak-beautiful" wife, Peggy Jean.

When Holland takes on the defense of Wilbur Pickett—a man accused of stealing an heirloom and three hundred thousand dollars in bonds from Deitrich's office—he finds himself up against not only Earl's power and influence, but also a past Billy Bob can't will away. A wonderfully realized novel, rich in Texas atmosphere and lore, and a dazzling portrait of the deadly consequences of self-delusion,Heartwood could only have been written by James Lee Burke, a writer in expert command of his craft.

Editorial Reviews

The Barnes & Noble Review
Two years ago, James Lee Burke published , an unexpected departure from his popular Dave Robicheaux series — to my mind, the best long-running series of suspense novels in recent American fiction. The change, expected or not, was obviously beneficial: Cimarron Rose became a national bestseller and went on to win the Mystery Writers of America's Edgar Award as Best Novel of 1997.

In Cimarron Rose — and in its newly published sequel, Heartwood— Burke has shifted his focus from the bayou country of Louisiana to the fictional small town of Deaf Smith, Texas, and has replaced Dave Robicheaux with the equally angst-ridden Billy Bob Holland, a defense attorney and former Texas Ranger who carries with him a host of personal demons, a large measure of unresolved guilt, and an extreme, barely repressed capacity for violence. As anyone familiar with the Robichaux series will realize, these are the classic characteristics of a James Lee Burke hero.

Heartwood also invokes a classic James Lee Burke theme: the poisoning of the American heartland by the forces of ignorance, brutality, expediency, and greed. In Heartland, these forces are embodied by Earl Deitrich, the richest and most desperate man in Deaf Smith. Deitrich — who is married to the first great love of Billy Bob Holland's life, the beautiful and unattainable Peggy Jean Murphy — has managed to squander, leverage, or gamble away the lion's share of a family fortune that an earlier generation of Deitrichs acquired by trafficking in the diamond mines oftheBelgian Congo and by enslaving and exploiting the Congo's native population. Earl Deitrich, in conjunction with a local Mexican-American youth gang called the Purple Hearts, has resorted to a sleazy series of scams in order to maintain his accustomed cash flow: enticing friends and business acquaintances into high-stakes poker games, which are then held up at gunpoint; torching his own vacant building in downtown Houston, an act that results in the deaths of four firemen; and accusing a down-on-his-luck ex-rodeo star of robbery, then presenting his insurance company with a vastly inflated claim for the stolen items.

Set against Deitrich and his various schemes is embattled defense attorney Billy Bob Holland, who is forced to contend, simultaneously, with a number of related issues: the depredations of Deitrich's son Jeff, a teenaged sociopath with deep-seated sexual problems and a pronounced sadistic tendency; his residual feelings for the still beautiful, still unattainable Peggy Jean Deitrich; his difficult relationship with his illegitimate son, Lucas; and his own long-standing propensity for meeting violence with violence. As the story progresses and the tension between opposing forces steadily increases, the atmosphere in Deaf Smith gradually ignites in a series of explosions that leave several people dead and which climax with a hallucinatory encounter between father and son, an encounter that ends the local domination of the Deitrich family in an ironic, and tragic, fashion.

Despite its relatively new venue, Heartwood is immediately recognizable as the work of James Lee Burke. It is, first of all, a densely observed book, filled, in typical Burke fashion, with amazingly detailed portraits of the people, places, and things that, taken together, make up the world of Deaf Smith, Texas. Burke, as always, misses nothing. His sense of place is nothing short of astonishing, and his evocation of the beauties of the natural world — in this case, the hill country north of Austin — is powerful, poetic, and absolutely convincing.

Like so much of Burke's earlier work, Heartwood is also a novel in which the lovingly detailed physical world is constantly interpenetrated by the world of the spirit, a world in which ghosts speak, psychic visions reveal hidden truths, and the door between different levels of reality occasionally swings open. Burke has always managed this delicate balancing act with great resourcefulness (see In the Electric Mist with Confederate Dead for a particularly striking example of this tendency), and Heartwood continues this idiosyncratic tradition in typical high style.

With two Billy Bob Holland novels under his belt, Burke has effectively launched an alternate series of suspense novels that may well rival the Robicheaux books in both quality and popularity. Heartwood, like the novels that preceded it, is the work of a real writer, a man with a dark, sorrowful vision of a violent, self-destructive society. It confirms James Lee Burke's position as one of the preeminent crime novelists of late-20th-century America.

—Bill Sheehan

Entertainment Weekly
Burke draws you into every dark, intimate corner of the small town of Deaf Smith, Texas...you'll be sorry to leave.
New York Daily News
Among the best of Burke's novels...As the next-to-last chapter opens, there are a half-dozen loose plot strands to untangle. Burke does it, and he does it without betraying all the stuff that went before.
New York Times Book Review
Burke is a severe moralist but his tough hide soften like lambskin when he turns to oddballs, outsiders, and natural-born losers. Adopting the vision of these social outcasts...Burke shows us wonders.
Ann Prichard
Heartwood is an action-laden legal thriller with evil oilmen, psychotic gangbangers, hapless cowboys and enough dadburn varmints to fill a hoosegow.
USA Today
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Burke's newer series hero, Billy Bob Holland (Cimarron Rose, 1997), could have been separated at birth from Burke's long-time protagonist, ex-New Orleans cop Dave Robicheaux. Although Holland is a lawyer in the rolling hill country north of Austin, Tex., he shares Robicheaux's sensibilities: he's brutally honest, haunted by his past, kind to children, protective of the underdog, a lover of the beautiful country in which he lives. Most of Burke's villains are arrogant millionaires; here, the dark heart belongs to Earl Deitrich from Houston, who spread his money around the town of Deaf Smith and married the prettiest girl, Peggy Jean Murphy, Holland's high-school sweetheart. Deitrich's pervasive evil extends from threatening Kippy Jo and Wilbur Pickett into ceding him the oil-rich Wyoming property Kippy Jo inherited from her grandfather, to arranging the false arrest of a business victim, to arson and murder in an alliance with a San Antonio Chicano gang. Meanwhile, Deitrich's insolent son Jeff elopes with the sister of the gang's leader; their breakup places Holland's own, illegitimate son in peril. Despite a circuitous, often confusing plot, the novel compels for its lush portrayal of exquisite countryside; its beautifully composed, mood-setting scenes that pace the action; and the leisurely introductions that give dimension to the many eccentric characters. At one point, a Deitrich victim sums up a consistent Burke theme: "Law punishes a poor man. Rich man don't have to account." Holland agrees, but succeeds in turning the tables in this rewarding novel. Major ad/promo; author tour.
Library Journal
Burke's Billy Bob Holland is back, defending loser Wilbur Pickett against accusations of having stolen from powerful Earl Dietrich.
Kirkus Reviews
A second rangy Texas crime opera (Cimarron Rose, 1997) from the Edgar-winning chronicler of bayou detective Dave Robicheaux. This time out, Deaf Smith attorney Billy Bob Holland is handling what looks like a little case: the defense of Wilbur Pickett, a resounding flop who's been accused by local Croesus Earl Deitrich of stealing $300,000 in bearer bonds and an antique watch. But nothing ever stays little for long in Burke's monumental novels, and this case simmers with rumors that the watch rightly belonged to rolling-stone Skyler Doolittle; that Deitrich accountant Max Greenbaum was at the point of challenging his boss's story when he was killed by gang-bangers in Houston; and that the power behind the dangerous games of a Deaf Smith gang called the Purple Hearts is Deitrich and his gay-bashing gay son Jeff. Billy Bob, still haunted by his high-school fling with Deitrich's wife Peggy Jean—an affair she seems indecently eager to resume—can't swing a dead cat around his homestead without hitting other predators and the little people they prey on. No sooner has rascally Deitrich pilot Bubba Grimes offered to give evidence against Deitrich than he breaks into the home of Wilbur's blind wife Kippy Jo, and she's facing murder charges for shooting him. And when Skyler, hustled into custody by another Deitrich plot, takes it on the lam, his escape ensnares both the fellow-convict who helps him and the sadistic deputy bent on tracking him down. It's all perfectly familiar to Burke's legion of fans, of course—from the ancient romance with the spoiled rich girl to the corruption of wealth and power to the violence seething inside gang-bangers and heroes alike—andit's all done to a turn. Forget Raymond Chandler. The obsessive return of Burke's ambitious themes, together with his characters' inexhaustible capacity for courage, tenderness, and rage, makes him the Faulkner of the American crime novel.

From the Publisher
Critical acclaim for James Lee Burke and the Billy Bob Holland Series:

"Burke is a master at setting mood, laying in atmosphere, all with quirky, raunchy dialogue that's a delight."
--Elmore Leonard

"Billy Bob Holland is as angst-ridden and morally shell-shocked as Dave Robicheaux ever was, but like Robicheaux, Holland's moral compass always points to true north...Don't miss out."
--Rocky Mountain News

"Burke [is] one of the best writers of our time.  His plots build tension to such a pitch that it tempts one to rush through his books.  But his writing demands that his works be savored."
--Denver Post

"Burke is known for the lush bayou cadences that give solid flesh to his longtime series hero, deputy sheriff Dave Robicheaux, and this prose style moves easily to the steamy precincts of southeast Texas."
--Chicago Sun-Times

From the Hardcover edition.

Product Details

Doubleday Publishing
Publication date:
Billy Bob Holland Series , #2
Edition description:
1st Edition
Product dimensions:
6.12(w) x 9.25(h) x 1.18(d)

Read an Excerpt


IT WOULD BE EASY TO SAY WE RESENTED EARL Deitrich because he was rich. Maybe to a degree we did. He grew up in River Oaks, down in Houston, in an enormous white mansion set up on a hillock surrounded by shade trees. Its size and seclusion separated it even from the Midas levels of wealth that characterized his few neighbors. But our problem with him was not simply his money.

He was an officer, on leave from the army, when he came to the town of Deaf Smith, up in the Texas hill country, where the working classes wrestled drill bits and waited tables and the new rich chewed on toothpicks at the country club. He used his wealth to hold up a mirror to our inadequacies and take Peggy Jean Murphy from our midst, then brought her back to us as his wife and possession, almost as though she were on display.

Peggy Jean Murphy, who was heart-breakingly beautiful, who lived in our dreams, who commanded such inclusive respect the roughest kids in the West End dared not make a loose remark about her lest they be punched senseless by their own kind.

Earl Deitrich made us realize that our moments on the dance floor with her at high school proms and the romantic fantasies we entertained about marriage to her had always been the vanity of blue-collar kids who had never been in the running at all. Maybe even the high school quarterback she'd loved before he'd been drafted and killed on the Mekong had not been in the running, either.

But that was a long time ago. I tried not to think about Peggy Jean anymore. She and Earl lived abroad and in Montana much of the year and I didn't have occasion to see them, or to regret thedecisions that led me into law enforcement on the border and the months of unrecorded and officially denied nocturnal raids into Coahuila, where a playing card emblazoned with the badge of the Texas Rangers was stuffed into the mouths of the dead.

But try as I might, I would never forget the spring afternoon when Peggy Jean got down from the back of my horse and walked with me into a woods above the river and allowed me to lose my virginity inside her.

When I rose from her hot body, her pale blue eyes were empty, staring at the clouds above the pine tops. I wanted her to say something, but she didn't.

"I don't guess I got a lot of experience at this," I said.

She ran her hand down my arm and held my fingers. There were blades of grass on her shoulders and breasts.

"You were fine, Billy Bob," she said.

Then I knew she had not made love to me but to a soldier who had died in Vietnam.

"You want to go to a movie tonight?" I asked.

"Maybe tomorrow," she replied.

"I like you a whole lot. I know when you lose somebody, it takes a long—"

"We'd better go back now. We'll go to the movie tomorrow. I promise," she said.

But no one competes well with ghosts. At least no one in our town did, not until Earl Deitrich arrived.

Earl and Peggy Jean's house was rumored to have cost twelve million dollars to build. It was three stories high, concave in shape, inset in a scooped-out hillside, the yard terraced with tons of flagstone. The front was filled with windows the size of garages, framed by white-painted steel beams. Ninety-foot skinned and lacquered ponderosa logs were anchored at angles from the roof to the ground, so that at a distance the house looked like a giant, gold-streaked tooth couched in the hills.

It was spring, on a Thursday, when I drove my Avalon out to their house for lunch. I had never felt comfortable around Earl, even though I did my best to like him, but she had left a handwritten note in the mailbox at my law office, saying they were back in town and would love to see me.

So I drove across the old iron bridge on the river, back into the hills, then through a cattleguard and down a long green valley whose fields were covered with buttercups and bluebonnets and Indian paintbrush. As I approached the house I saw a sun-browned, blond man in khakis and scuffed boots and a cut-off denim shirt setting fence posts around a horse lot that had been nubbed down to dirt.

His name was Wilbur Pickett and he had failed at almost every endeavor he had ever undertaken. When he tried to borrow money to start up a truck farm, his own mother told everybody in town Wilbur couldn't grow germs on the bottom of his shoe.

He wildcatted down in Mexico and set fire to a sludge pit next to the rig, then the wind blew the flames through a dry field and burned down the local police chief's ranch house. Wilbur barely got back across the border with his life.

In the Flint Hills of eastern Kansas, after a blistering 110-degree day, he unloaded an eighteen-wheeler full of hogs in rest pens without noticing the rails were down on the far side. Then watched them fan across the hills into three counties under a sky spiderwebbed with lightning.

But when it came to horses and bulls, Wilbur could come out of a rodeo chute like his pants were stitched to their hides. He broke mustangs in Wyoming and went seven seconds with Bodacious, the most notorious bull on the professional circuit (Bodacious would pitch the rider forward, then rear his head into the rider's face and crush the bones in it). Wilbur's face had to be rebuilt with metal plates, so that it now looked chiseled, the profile and jawline faintly iridescent, as though there were chemicals in his skin.

I stopped my car and waited for him to walk over to the window. His gray, shapeless cowboy hat was sweat-stained around the base of the crown. He took it off and wiped his brow and smiled.

"I got a pipeline deal down in Venezuela. Twenty or thirty grand can get you in on the ground floor," he said.

"I bet," I said.

"How about sluice mining in British Columbia? I'm talking about float gold big as elks' teeth, son."

"How's the weather up there in January?"

"Beats the hell out of listening to rich people tell you how much money they got," he said.

"See you, Wilbur."

"Jobbing out like this? Temporary situation. I'm fixing to make it happen."

He grinned, full of self-irony, and pulled his work gloves from his back pocket and knocked the dust out of them against his palm.

Peggy Jean and Earl had other guests that afternoon, too—a United States congressman, a real estate broker from Houston, a member of the state legislature, their wives, and a small, nervous, dark-haired man with a hawk's nose and thick glasses and dandruff on the shoulders of his blue suit.

Peggy Jean wore a white sundress with purple and green flowers on it. She had always been a statuesque girl and the years had not affected her posture or figure. There was a mole by the side of her mouth, and her hair was the color of mahogany, so thick and lustrous you wanted to reach out and touch it when she walked by.

She saw me looking at her from across the room. I went into the kitchen with her and helped her make a pitcher of iced tea and a second pitcher of lemonade. She washed a bowl of mint from the garden, then trimmed the sprigs with scissors and handed me two of them to put in the lemonade. The tips of her fingers were wet when she touched my palm.

"Earl's going to talk business with you," she said.

"He can talk it all he wants," I said.

"You don't do civil law?"

"Not his kind."

"He can't help where his family's money came from," she said.

"You're looking great, Peggy Jean," I said.

She picked up the tray and walked ahead of me onto the side porch, which was furnished and built to look like an eating area in a simple home of sixty years ago. The walls were unpainted slat board, the ceiling posts wood and lathed with bulbous undulations in them; the long plank table was covered with a checkered cloth; an old-time icebox, with oak doors and brass handles, stood in the corner; a bladed fan turned lazily overhead. I stood by the open window and looked at Wilbur Pickett dropping a shaved and beveled fence post into a hole.

"Last year I inherited half a city block in downtown Houston," Earl said to me, smiling, a glass of iced tea in his hand. He was a handsome man, at ease in his corduroys and soft burnt-orange shirt, his fine brown hair combed like a little boy's across his forehead. There was nothing directly aggressive about Earl, but his conversation always had to do with himself, or what he owned, or the steelhead fishing trips he took to Idaho or up on the St. Lawrence River. If he had any interest in anyone outside his own frame of reference, he gave no sign of it.

"But it's my worst nightmare," he went on. "A failed savings and loan had the lease on the site. The government seized the savings and loan, and I can't do anything with the property. The government doesn't pay rent on seized properties and at the same time I have a six-figure tax obligation on the land. Can you believe that?"

"This has something to do with me?" I asked.

"It might," he replied.

"Not interested," I said.

He winked and squeezed my forearm with two fingers. "Let's eat some lunch," he said.

Then he followed my gaze out to the horse lot where Wilbur was working.

"You know Wilbur?" he said.

"I've bought horses from him."

"We'll invite him in."

"You don't need to do that, Earl," I said.

"I like him." He cut his head philosophically. "Sometimes I wish I could trade places with a guy like that," he said.

I was soon to relearn an old lesson about the few very rich people I had known. Their cruelty was seldom deliberate, but its effect was more injurious than if it were the result of a calculated act, primarily because the victim was made to understand how insignificant his life really was.

An elderly black man, whose name was John, went out to the horse lot to get Wilbur, who looked uncertainly at the house a moment, then washed his hands and forearms and face with a garden hose and came in through the kitchen. He pulled up one of the cushioned redwood chairs to the table and nodded politely while he was introduced, his shirtfront plastered against his chest, his neck cuffed with fresh sunburn.

"Y'all pardon my appearance," he said.

"Don't worry about that. Eat up," Earl said.

"It looks mighty good, I'll tell you that," Wilbur said.

But Earl was not listening now. "I want to show y'all a real piece of history," Earl said to the others, and opened a blue velvet box, inside of which was a huge brass-cased vest watch with a thick, square-link chain. "This was taken off a Mexican prisoner at the battle of San Jacinto in 1836. The story is the Mexican looted it off a dead Texan at the Alamo. I have a feeling this was one day he wished he'd left it at home."

The men at the table laughed.

Earl opened the hinged casing on each side of the watch and held it up by the chain. The watch twisted in a circle, like an impaired butterfly, a refracted, oily light wobbling on the yellowed face and Roman numerals.

"That come from the Alamo?" Wilbur said.

"You ever see one like it?" Earl said.

"No, sir. But my ancestor is supposed to have fought at San Jacinto. That's the good part of the story. The bad part is the family says he stole horses and sold them to both sides," Wilbur said.

But no one laughed, and Wilbur blinked and looked at a spot on the wall.

"John, would you bring a second glass for everyone so we can have some wine?" Earl said to the elderly black man.

"Yes, sir, right away," John replied.

"Y'all have to come up on the Gallatin in Montana," Earl said. "We catch five-pound rainbow right out the front door."

Wilbur had picked up the watch from the velvet case and was looking at the calligraphy incised on the case. Without missing a beat in his description of Montana trout fishing, Earl reached out and gingerly lifted the watch by its chain out of Wilbur's hand and replaced it in the box and closed the lid.

Wilbur's face was like a pink lightbulb.

I finished eating and turned to Peggy Jean.

"I have to get back to the office. It was surely a fine lunch," I said.

"Yeah, we'll talk more later about that real estate problem I mentioned," Earl said.

"I don't think so," I replied.

"You'll see," Earl said, and winked again. "Anyway, I want y'all to see the alligator I dumped in my pond," he said to the others. Then he turned to Wilbur and said, "You don't need to finish that fence today. Just help John clean up here and we'll call it square."

Earl and his guests went out the door and strolled through a peach orchard that was white with bloom. Wilbur stood for a long time by the plank table, his face empty, his leather work gloves sticking from his back pocket.

"You go on and finish what you were doing out there. John and I will take care of things here," Peggy Jean said.

"No, ma'am, I don't mind doing it. I'm always glad to hep out," Wilbur said, and began stacking dirty plates one on top of another.

I walked out to my car, into the bright, cool air and the smell of flowers and horses in the fields, and decided I couldn't afford any more lunches with Earl Deitrich.

But the lunch and its aftermath were not over. At four that afternoon Earl called me at my office on the town square.

"Have you seen that sonofabitch?" he said.

"Pardon?" I said.

"Wilbur Pickett. I put that watch on my office desk. When Peggy Jean's back was turned, he went in after it."

"Wilbur? That's hard to believe."

"Believe this. He didn't take just the watch. My safe door was open. He robbed me of three hundred thousand dollars in bearer bonds."

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher
Critical acclaim for James Lee Burke and the Billy Bob Holland Series:

"Burke is a master at setting mood, laying in atmosphere, all with quirky, raunchy dialogue that's a delight."
—Elmore Leonard

"Billy Bob Holland is as angst-ridden and morally shell-shocked as Dave Robicheaux ever was, but like Robicheaux, Holland's moral compass always points to true north...Don't miss out."
Rocky Mountain News

"Burke [is] one of the best writers of our time.  His plots build tension to such a pitch that it tempts one to rush through his books.  But his writing demands that his works be savored."
Denver Post

"Burke is known for the lush bayou cadences that give solid flesh to his longtime series hero, deputy sheriff Dave Robicheaux, and this prose style moves easily to the steamy precincts of southeast Texas."
Chicago Sun-Times

Meet the Author

James Lee Burke is the author of eighteen previous novels, including the New York Times bestsellers Sunset Limited, Cimarron Rose, Cadillac Jukebox, Burning Angel, and Dixie City Jam.  He lives with his wife in Missoula, Montana, and New Iberia, Louisiana.

From the Hardcover edition.

Brief Biography

New Iberia, Louisiana and Missoula, Montana
Date of Birth:
December 5, 1936
Place of Birth:
Houston, Texas
B.A., University of Missouri, 1959; M.A., University of Missouri, 1960

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Heartwood (Billy Bob Holland Series #2) 3.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 11 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
What I love about the kind of books James Lee Burke writes is the way they show how people make choices that subsequently sanctify or degrade their lives. What is puzzling, given that, is that skilled authors become dependent on their famous characters and need to hang on to them after they have outlived their time. Burke's new series, locale and hero works as well as his well established Dave Robicheaux series. His story lines are complex; his story is told by the hero, the villian, the characters, the locale, the present and the past. There is a point in all of the James Lee Burke books I have read when I simply cannot stop. This one too.
PKMAZ More than 1 year ago
I love this series of western mystery; his character portrayal are the best I've read. You feel a part of the plot and I couldn't put it down; I read it cover to cover at one sitting.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I picked this book up while traveling through Iowa because I wanted a good read. However, I could not even fathom how boring this book was...I couldn't even finish it.
Guest More than 1 year ago
If you read a lot and have become bored of late with what's out there...try Burke. This author not only writes the convoluted, intellengent and informative stuff we modern readers have become used to, he adds a craftsmanship and skill and authoring that makes you wonder if maybe you shouldn't take a break from anything written in the last 25 years and get back to real reading in the vein of Hemmingway, Faulkner and Steinbeck...but Burke is alive and writing to beat the band.
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Anonymous 11 months ago
then James Lee Burke is the author you want to read. He never fails to deliver. And his published works are enough to satisfy an avid reader for at least a couple of months. J M Lydon