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BLUEBIRD, BLUEBIRD
by Attica Locke
Mulholland, September 2017
336 pages
$26.00
ISBN: 0316363294


Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

At a time when police misconduct on the news makes police heroics on the page seem jarringly fictional, Attica Locke gives us what promises to be the first in a compelling new series that doesn't shy away from confronting the complexities of racism and its corrosive effect on policing, justice, and the American way.

Darren Mathews is in danger of losing his wife and his job. His spouse, never happy that he left law school to become a Texas Ranger, is ready to call it quits, and he's in legal trouble for coming to the aid of a friend during a dispute with a white supremacist that turned deadly. He's surprised when some higher-ups decide that, though he's been placed on leave, he's just the man to send to Lark, a small East Texas town, to offer the local sheriff support in solving two murders. A black man from Chicago turned up beaten and drowned in the bayou behind a local cafe just a few days before the body of a local white woman washed up in the same bayou. Maybe having a black Texas Ranger on the ground will help smooth over any negative publicity that could come to a town where black and white live side-by-side but in different worlds.

Mathews knows this territory. He grew up not far away, raised by two great-uncles, one a fierce defense lawyer and the other the first black Texas Ranger. Though he had left Texas behind to follow one uncle's example, he quit law school to follow the other's, joining the Rangers after his "9/11 moment," the day he heard about a black man being dragged to death behind a pickup truck in Jasper, a modern lynching not far from his home town. Texas isn't just a backward racist state to Mathews; it's his home, and home to people he loves. If he didn't do his duty, he figures the racists would win.

It's that stubborn devotion to the ideal of the Rangers and to the truth that makes him keep digging even after he's found a solution that seems to satisfy everyone to the double murder. Lark has a small cafe run by a black woman where he feels at home, a place where there's blues on the jukebox, good food on the stove, and a lingering mystery about the long-ago death of its former owner and his son. Lark is also home, just up the road, to a bar where members of the Aryan Brotherhood hang out and likely sell drugs. Just as he was unwilling to let Jasper define his home state, Mathews won't let easy answers solve his double homicide.

This is a rich and heady brew of a book, steeped in the past and full of East Texas flavor. It has a well-realized cast of characters, a rich sense of place, and a plot that combines reflection with the pacing of a thriller. It delves into the conflicted commitment a black man might feel toward his badge and brings to life the deep, enduring love people can have for a place where bigotry has deep roots. Like its hero, the novel refuses to investigate questions of justice without acknowledging the role racism plays in American society. Likewise, Locke doesn't shy away from the complicated way that human relationships cross over the social barriers we erect to keep our assumptions separated and simplified into black and white. It's a remarkable novel, and timely, and if it's truly the first in a series, we have a lot to look forward to.

Barbara Fister is an academic librarian, columnist, and author of the Anni Koskinen mystery series.

Reviewed by Barbara Fister, July 2017

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