Reviewed by Gill Davies
This is Attica Locke’s fourth novel and a stunning follow-up. Black Water Rising was set in 1981; Pleasantville in 1996 and both used the crime genre with deep political insight to explore crime and corruption in Houston. Bluebird, Bluebird is right up to date, infused with anger at the growing visibility of racist brutality in the USA. Locke was born in Houston and she is writing about places she knows well and feels a strong connection with. She gives her central character, Darren Mathews, ambiguous feelings about his roots in East Texas, which she doubtless shares. Darren’s ambiguity was created by his childhood and education. Raised by his two uncles, he succeeded in school and college. But just as he was about to qualify as a lawyer – like one uncle – he decided to become a lawman (a Texas ranger), like the other. He rejects a move into the black middle class, preferring the riskiness of direct action against lawlessness and injustice. His stance has alienated his remaining uncle (the lawyer) and his wife and, to an extent, the black community in which he grew up. Locke didn’t want a policeman at the centre of her earlier novels, preferring to use Jay Porter, a black lawyer, working in and for his community. Here she takes on the complex puzzle of a black man working in a state and an organisation that is institutionally racist. And because she wants to examine this complexity she shows how much Mathews’ position clouds his judgement and affects his investigation at important times. It is a fresh take on the traditional figure of the lone detective, and it produces an original and thought-provoking novel.
As the novel opens, Darren has been suspended from work to testify in a case involving a friend, who is accused of killing a white racist who menaced his family. He is told about a murder near his home area of East Texas, and he persuades his bosses to let him do some undercover investigation. A black lawyer from Chicago has been found dead in a bayou – but it is not until a white woman is also found dead in the same place that the police even consider it as murder.
Odd, Darren thought. Southern fables usually went the other way around: a white woman killed or harmed in some way, real or imagined, and then, like the moon follows the sun, a black man ends up dead.
It is possible that the case is linked to a wider Ranger investigation into the drugs business operated by the Aryan Brotherhood and this gives Darren the pretext to investigate what he suspects is a racially-motivated killing. His arrival is, as we might expect, not welcomed by the local sheriff but he is also met with some suspicion and lack of co-operation by the local black people and the victim’s widow.
The black characters are strongly drawn, sympathetic figures. They barely keep themselves alive by cooking and selling food or second-hand junk, cutting hair, driving long-distance trucks. They live on the margins in trailers and shacks, drive beaten-up cars and are vulnerable to racist attacks. These emanate from the nearby whites-only bar frequented by members of the Aryan Brotherhood, a brutal, prison-based gang that is also at the centre of drug production and distribution. But they are also at risk from the ignorance and callousness of individuals like the sheriff. The novel includes explicit references to appalling acts of savagery like the murder of Brandon McClelland in Texas in 2008 but Locke doesn’t need to lecture her readers; we all know about the brutal killings and assaults by police, and the response of the ‘black lives matter’ protests. And as Locke has said, ‘when Trump was elected, overnight my book changed. I didn’t alter a word’ (Guardian interview). But the novel isn’t a tract. It makes race and inequality the gripping basis of a story that is full of insight into relationships, conflict, bad faith, and human kindness.
One theme and plot line follows the gaping inequality between the generation of black men and women who went to university and law school and those who were left behind. Route 59 north figures strongly in the novel as the way out of the Texas backwoods to the northern cities. Some characters seem caught between the two worlds, restlessly seeking a place and an identity. Darren as a Texas Ranger is constantly on the move, avoiding final commitment, like the widow of the murder victim, a fashion photographer.
The plotting is tight and satisfyingly worked out. There are really four murders to be solved: the one in which the accused is a friend of Darren’s; and one from the past which turns out to have significance for the two current cases which Darren is investigating. And all are tied together by race, family, desire, hatred and deception. A particular strength of the novel is the way the protagonist misreads the situation; he knows there’s some vital element missing in the solution of the crimes but he can’t get beyond his (legitimate) belief that violence against black people will have been committed by white racists. It turns out to be more complicated than this. And the conclusion is very powerful and moving as a result.
Attica Locke, Bluebird, Bluebird (Serpent’s Tail, 2017). 978-1781257678, 303pp., hardback.
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