Review: Bluebird, Bluebird by Attica Locke
Southern fables usually go the other way around. A white woman is killed or harmed in some way, real or imagined, and then, like the moon follows the sun, a black man ends up dead.
For all the genres of books that I read and enjoy, I have never been one for crime novels. I have started many, but none had grabbed me enough to keep me hooked, ironically. Sometimes books can take me weeks if I’m not focused enough, but no amount of guilt has ever stopped me from choosing to put a crime novel down midway through, often where the plot would be unfolding into its real grit. I’m not entirely sure why this is. Perhaps for the same reason that some people devour action films and some find them laughably flimsy and blemished with plot holes, be it in story or style…
With Attica Locke's novel, Bluebird, Bluebird, however, I had no choice. In fact, I engulfed it. In just under five hours in accumulated reading time, to be precise, on trains, sofas and coffee tables, this is the first crime novel I have finished, and not by choice, but by necessity. I needed to find out whether our central protagonist, Darren Mathews, a black Texas Ranger working the backwoods towns of Highway 59, would be able to restore faith in law and order in this murder case. But in East Texas, even Darren knows that the justice system plays by its own rules.
“Ambivalent about his home state, he was the first in his family to get as far away from Texas as he could. Until duty called him home.”
In the small town of Lark, two dead bodies have washed up in the swamp. The first body is an African-American lawyer from Chicago. The second, a local white woman, barely aged nineteen. Resentment sets ablaze from this case, and Darren must find a solution, and the right culprit, before the town of Lark’s long-simmering racial conflict, rooted in history, family ties and misplaced affections, bursts every thread into frays.
"You're never going to get anything better out of this redneck justice out here," proclaims Randie, the widow of the black murder victim, Michael Wright, but Darren wont stop his quest for justice, for the case, for Missy, and for his job. Mostly, however, for Michael Wright, and Darren’s allegiance to his roots.
The plot is kept tight and tenderly rhythmic, mimicking the actions of Darren (who is partial to a Bourbon or four) and his sometimes crippling self-awareness he possesses in order not to jeopardise his job further in the case, in which he is “imagined to have an outsize personal stake”. I found Darren amicable, real and comforting. Through Locke's thoughtful writing I felt able to empathise with him. I rooted for him. I felt the frustrations he would bear to not speak too much to the wrong people, or take action, especially in the face of doubt and violent racism, and his empathy not to hurt those who were already hurting.
Through Darren's investigative position in the case we meet multifaceted, unique female characters who evolve the story further. With lingering details of fleeting dalliances, the warm, glowing musicality of Geneva and Joe's cinematic love story, - not just as a fictional anecdote in the narrative but also in Locke’s telling of it, and the echoes it carries throughout the novel - the harrowing gun crime and social tensions between race, and the tension of a murder mystery, Bluebird Bluebird immerses you into the red sands of Texas, but you’re never quite allowed to overlook that, "For black folks, injustice came from both sides of the law, a double-edged sword of heartache and pain”. Just as the story seems nearly tied together with tenderness and resolution, the rug is pulled from beneath us as readers, and Darren himself, as we are reminded of the cover question, when is it safe for a black man to follow the rules?
Fresh, exhilarating and memorable, Bluebird, Bluebird feels like a bluesy, thrilling novel about the collision of race and justice and the corruption in America, yet it is so much more.
Attica Locke is an award-winning writer, with previous works including Pleasantville, Black Water Rising, and The Cutting Season, and has also been a screenwriter for Paramount, Warner Bros, Twentieth Century Fox, HBO and Dreamworks. Purchase your own copy, out 28th September from Serpent’s Tail here, available for pre-order in hardback now.