Book Review: Bluebird, Bluebird by Attica Locke

BluebirdBluebirdAbout the Book

When it comes to law and order, East Texas plays by its own rules–a fact that Darren Mathews, a black Texas Ranger, knows all too well. Deeply ambivalent about growing up black in the lone star state, he was the first in his family to get as far away from Texas as he could. Until duty called him home. When his allegiance to his roots puts his job in jeopardy, he travels up Highway 59 to the small town of Lark, where two murders – a black lawyer from Chicago and a local white woman – have stirred up a hornet’s nest of resentment. Darren must solve the crimes – and save himself in the process – before Lark’s long-simmering racial fault lines erupt. A rural noir suffused with the unique music, color, and nuance of East Texas, Bluebird, Bluebird is an exhilarating, timely novel about the collision of race and justice in America.

Format: Hardcover (320 pp.), ebook (318 pp.) Publisher: Serpent’s Tail
Published: 28th September 2017                         Genre: Mystery & Thrillers

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My Review

Attica Locke returns to familiar territory with a story of racial tension, inequality and separation in modern day America. However, there’s nothing tired about her exploration of these issues. In fact, they have fresh resonance against the background of the #TakeAKnee and #BlackLivesMatters campaigns.

I have to say the idea that, in this day and age, people should still be discriminated against openly because of their skin colour or that their deaths should matter less than those of people with a different skin colour is anathema to me. So I found the descriptions of racist language and attitudes in the book deeply unsettling. However, nothing shocked me as much as finding out that the white supremacist gang that features in the book – The Aryan Brotherhood of Texas – actually exists and is not a product of the author’s imagination.

The background of discrimination creates the tension at the heart of the book and its pervasive nature means it will need a strong character to stand up to vested interests unmoved by the ingrained racism and economic inequality. Darren Mathews’ commitment to his role as a Texas Ranger has created tension in his marriage and threatens his sobriety. He’s proud of the place he grew up and what his family have made of themselves. Well, not all of his family, because his birth mother, Bell, is a downbeat, manipulative drunk.

Propelled by a strong sense of justice, Darren refuses to be sidelined or thwarted in his search for the truth about the murders of a black lawyer and a white woman whose deaths may be linked.   His willingness to go out on a limb will bring him dangerous enemies – ‘Without the badge, he was just a black man travelling the highway alone’ – and result in long-buried secrets being uncovered.

The author has a natural way with dialogue that makes you forget you’re reading a book and imagine the action is playing out in front of you. Not surprising, perhaps, given that Attica Locke is an award-winning screenwriter.  She also has the ability to create characters that seem real. They may be flawed and not always likeable but they speak truthfully about the way some people live.

‘She was sitting on the concrete steps in front of the mobile homes, smoking a Newport and picking nail polish off her big toe. She had a beer at her feet, but Darren knew better. The real shit was in the house….Bell lifted a little bullet-shaped bottle of Cutty Sark and sucked on it like a nipple. They sold the little airplane-size bottles for fifty cents at the bait-and-tackle-shop, and Bell had them lined up on the window ledge like a loaded clip of rifle shells.’

The author also creates a wonderful sense of place. Again, what she describes may not be the most attractive places you’ve ever been to but they come alive on the page – the sights, sounds and smells.

‘Behind the rear wall was the kitchen, where Dennis was working on a pot of oxtails. Geneva could smell bay leaves soaking in beef fat and garlic, onion and liquid smoke. Beyond the kitchen’s screen door lay a wide plot of land, red dirt dotted with buttercup weeds and crabgrass, rolling a hundred yards or so to the banks of a rust-coloured bayou that was Shelby County’s western border.’

Finally, Locke is brilliant at plot. I’ll be honest, I did not see the development in the last few paragraphs coming and it put a whole different perspective on one of the key relationships in the book.

I devoured Bluebird, Bluebird in just a couple of sittings and it left me entertained as a murder mystery story but with a profound sense of discomfort about some of the things I’d read. I guess that’s what the best contemporary fiction should do. The excellent news for fans (like me) of Attica Locke’s books is that Bluebird, Bluebird is the first in a planned series – Highway 59.  I can’t wait for the next one.

I received an advance reader copy courtesy of NetGalley and publishers, Serpent’s Tail, in return for an honest review.

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Attica_LockeAbout the Author

Attica Locke’s first novel, Black Water Rising, was shortlisted for the Orange Prize, nominated for an Edgar Award, an NAACP Image Award and a Los Angeles Times Book Prize. Her most recent book, The Cutting Season, was published in 2012 to critical acclaim. Attica is also a screenwriter who has written movie and television scripts for Paramount, Warner Bros, Disney, Twentieth Century Fox, Jerry Bruckheimer Films, HBO, Dreamworks and Silver Pictures. She is currently a co-producer on the hit show Empire. She was also a fellow at the Sundance Institute’s Feature Filmmakers Lab and is a graduate of Northwestern University. A native of Houston, Texas, Attica lives in Los Angeles, California, with her husband and daughter.

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4 thoughts on “Book Review: Bluebird, Bluebird by Attica Locke

  1. This sounds like a great book and just the kind of thing that needs to be put out there given the current dialogue about race. Considering Attica Locke is a brilliant writer, that doesn’t surprise me, though. :p Excellent review!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you. I have loved all her books but this one seemed especially relevant given current times we’re living through. Although I recall reading in an interview recently that she wrote it before Trump became president…

      Liked by 1 person

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