Book Review: Bluebird, Bluebird by Attica Locke

A double murder in an East Texas town draws a black Texas Ranger deep into the shadows of the Piney Woods and the tangled race relations there

<i>Bluebird, Bluebird</i> by Attica Locke

Anyone who's spent any time in the East Texas Piney Woods can tell you that the shadows there are dark and deep – so dark and deep that something hidden in them may never come to light. That's the country into which Darren Mathews drives in Attica Locke's Bluebird, Bluebird, and though this Texas Ranger knows the landscape, he almost loses himself in those shadows while trying to solve a double homicide in Lark, a bump in the road on Highway 59 northeast of Nacogdoches. That the victims were a black man and a white woman – the former a Chicago lawyer, the latter a local waitress – goes a long way toward explaining why the killings set the town on edge. Racial tensions run as high in Lark today as they did a century ago, the only change being that the white supremacists have switched from the KKK to the ABT – the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas.

Those tensions just make Mathews' job that much more complicated. For while Locke casts him from the mold of the classic mystery hero – troubled marriage, check; drinking problem, check; obstinate sense of honor, check; suspended by superiors, check; disobeys their orders anyway, check – she gives him one crucial difference: He's black. As a member of the Texas Rangers, that makes him a rarity. And as a lawman investigating the murder of a black man in Deep East Texas, that puts a target on his back. He isn't the enemy just for the secrets he may uncover; he's the enemy for the color of his skin.

A native Texan herself, Locke knows how such racial animus can breed an atmosphere of dread, and she employs it deftly to spark suspense – every shadow seems to conceal a threat, and Mathews' audacious visits to the icehouse favored by the ABT feel like a walk into the lion's den. But Locke also knows that there's more to East Texas than conflict. For every fraught moment that has you turning the page, there's a personal moment with the characters where the culture and history Locke dishes up has you linger on the page, to sop up every detail like red-eye gravy with a biscuit – loving descriptions of ramshackle roadside cafes and the strong black women who run them, of fresh homemade fried pies, of Lightnin' Hopkins wailing from the jukebox, of a love so strong that it could make a man who was "a Devil on the Guitar" give up the road to be with his woman, of a will so strong that black families wouldn't let anyone push them off the land they made their own. Locke gets the red dirt of East Texas under our nails as she pushes deeper into the novel's mystery, and with it we gain a greater understanding of not just the region but also the relationships in it and how tangled they can be. Black and white don't mix only in death.

This is a world in which the modest, low-slung cafe of Geneva Sweet, a black woman who has run it for decades, sits on one side of the road, and directly across from it sits a sprawling red-brick mansion designed to resemble Monticello, whose white owner, Wallace Jefferson III, also happens to own the icehouse frequented by the Aryan Brotherhood. Wally has no problem with whites who terrorize and murder blacks, and yet he can be very solicitous and even protective of Geneva. Something has been hidden in the shadows of the Piney Woods, and as a black Texas Ranger works to pull it into the light, Highway 59 proves to be a thin line between love and hate.


Bluebird, Bluebird

Mulholland Press, 320 pp., $26

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 36 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

READ MORE
More crime fiction
<i>The Undertaker's Daughter</i> by Sara Blaedel
The Undertaker's Daughter by Sara Blaedel
Denmark's "Queen of Crime" brings the mystery Stateside with a Danish woman who must deal with both a funeral home she's inherited in Wisconsin and a local murder

Elizabeth Cobbe, July 20, 2018

Sherry Thomas Is Our Lady of Crime Solving
Sherry Thomas Is Our Lady of Crime Solving
The game's afoot in a very different way in this Austin author's spin on Sherlock Holmes

Rosalind Faires, July 13, 2018

More Texas literature
Elizabeth Crook's <i>The Which Way Tree</i>
Elizabeth Crook’s The Which Way Tree
Chasing revenge on the Texas frontier in this remarkable new novel from the author of Monday, Monday

Robert Faires, March 9, 2018

More Arts Reviews
Steven Saylor's <i>The Throne of Caesar</i>
Steven Saylor's The Throne of Caesar
Caesar's murder gets a fresh coat of paint in this mystery of ancient Rome

Rosalind Faires, July 13, 2018

<i>The City of Brass</i> by S.A. Chakraborty
The City of Brass by S.A. Chakraborty
This debut fantasy novel is appealing, in part because it draws on legends of the Arab world for its magic

Elizabeth Cobbe, March 2, 2018

More by Robert Faires
MASS Gallery Moving
MASS Gallery Moving
Gallery leaving 507 Calles Saturday, selling art to fund move

July 19, 2018

Forklift Danceworks' <i>Dove Springs Swims</i>
Forklift Danceworks' Dove Springs Swims
The company's latest community production showed why Dove Springs' pool matters to that neighborhood and to all of us as well

July 20, 2018

KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

crime fiction, Texas literature, crime fiction, Texas literature, Attica Locke, Piney Woods, Attica Locke, Piney Woods, Crime Month 2018

MORE IN THE ARCHIVES
NEWSLETTERS
AC Daily, Events and Promotions, Luvdoc Answers

Breaking news, recommended events, and more

Official Chronicle events, promotions, and giveaways

Updates for SXSW 2018

All questions answered (satisfaction not guaranteed)

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle