How could you not fall for a writer named “Attica”? As the feminized version of Atticus (writer-philosopher friend of Cicero and, in our own time, beloved character Atticus Finch), the name implies finely-honed writing and clear-eyed vision — both of which are on display in Attica Locke’s compulsive new novel.
In BLUEBIRD, BLUEBIRD, Attic Locke has written a crime story that moves beyond the boundaries of its genre. Situated in the East Texas backwater town of Lark, the novel uses murder as a springboard to explore big themes — concepts of home, family, law and justice — all aswirl in the hot, murky cauldron of racism, where love and hate are hard to separate out.
Darren Matthews is a rarity in his home state — a Texas Ranger and a black man. When two bodies wash up in a bayou, Matthews heads up to Lark to solve the mystery; those two deaths are surely related, he thinks. The local sheriff is just as sure they’re not; his only interest is in solving the death of the white female, a local wife and mother. The black male, he figures, is an out-of-towner and the victim of robbers passing through. Not his problem.
The sheriff’s attitude is indicative of Lark — which exists in an uneasy racial standoff. Geneva Sweet’s roadside cafe is a welcome haven for black townspeople, any of whom would find themselves unwelcome in the Icehouse, a tavern just up the road. Worse, the Icehouse, Matthews suspects, harbors a branch of the Texas Aryan Brotherhood.
Even so, Icehouse owner and white patriarch Wally Jefferson, a slippery, slightly unsavory fellow, is inexplicably drawn to Geneva’s cafe. He can’t seem to stay away — so regular a customer that Geneva slaps the correct change on the counter even before Wally pulls out his standard 20 to pay for coffee or pie. They are attuned in some strange way.
We know, of course, who the good guys are, as well as the bad guys: our allegiances are telescoped early on. Nonetheless, the author has created a group of richly endowed characters, all in some way flawed, besieged with regrets from the past, alongside fear of what’s to come. And trouble is what’s coming. With the white woman’s body found out back of her cafe, Geneva knows the weight of Texas law will fall as it always has — inevitably and unfairly — on Lark’s black residents.
The novel’s only misstep, and it’s a sizable one, is in the character of Randie Winston, the glamorous widow of the slain black man. She uses up a lot of ink and to little purpose — other than to cycle, repeatedly, through a set-piece of moods: pout, scold, tear-up, and throw-up. In real life, a victim’s wife tagging along and interfering with a murder investigation would be a nonstarter.
Overall, Attica Locke is a highly gifted author, whose prose — steeped in idiom and lyricism, yet taut and lucid when called for — is a joy to read. Laced with flashbacks and bedeviled with twists and turns, the plot propels readers to its surprising end. The good news is that Bluebird, Bluebird is the first in a planned series with Darren Matthews in the lead, and that’s something to look forward to. Highly recommended.
Philip J. Adler
P.J. teaches high school AP English. After dusting off the blackboard chalk, he pens essays and reviews (and works on his desk-drawer novel). An avid reader and self-proclaimed nerd, P.J. leans to sci-fi but also enjoys nonfiction—science and technology, history and current events.