As a reader of mysteries, I’ve always been a fan of the more hardboiled variety and especially those with a strong sense of place—George Pelecanos writing about Washington D.C., Dennis Lehane writing about Boston, James Lee Burke writing about Louisiana, and most recently, Craig Johnson writing about Absaroka County (not a real county) in Wyoming. Well, now I can add Attica Locke to this list. Her focus is East Texas and her novels are rich and complex, featuring flawed protagonists, who find themselves in tricky situations at the intersection of race, class, and power.
Bluebird, Bluebird was my book club’s choice for July (we meet next week!) but I got Attica Locke’s 2009 debut novel, Black Water Rising, for Christmas and ended up reading that first. In Black Water Rising, Locke tells the story of Jay Porter, a newly licensed African-American lawyer in Houston, whose practice is in a strip mall and whose clients leave a bit to be desired. It’s 1981 and Porter is struggling to leave his past behind. As a college student in the late 1960’s, he got involved in radical politics; a demonstration gone wrong (along with a connection to Stokely Carmichael) almost landed him a lengthy prison sentence. Saved by the graces of one juror (the only black person on the panel), Porter turned his life around and now is trying to build a good life for himself and his pregnant wife, Bernie.
Porter’s goals soon meet a harsh reality. He and Bernie are celebrating her birthday on Buffalo Bayou in a shabby boat that Porter secured for free from a client and is piloted by the client’s cousin, an elderly man. Not only is the situation not the “moonlight cruise” Porter had envisioned when he arranged it but the couple ends up witness to a crime. They hear screams, then gunshots, and then they see a woman in the water. Porter jumps in and saves her but she is not forthcoming about what happened. The couple takes her to the police station and assume that their involvement is done but as you might guess, that is just the beginning. Soon people are dying, coverups are happening, and Porter’s past comes back with a vengeance.
Attica Locke’s 2017 novel, Bluebird, Bluebird, takes place in the present day, not the 1980’s, but issues of race, power, and the past still drive the story. Darren Matthews has always been torn between the career paths of his two uncles, Clayton and William, both who helped to raise him—one a lawyer and the other one of the first black Texas Rangers. Matthews attended law school at University of Chicago but didn’t finish, choosing instead to follow the path of the other uncle.
This choice has not made life easy, especially because his wife, Lisa, has never fully resigned herself to his career choice and the dangers he encounters on the job—especially as he tackles cases with racial overtones. When Matthews is put on administrative leave because of his personal involvement in a case, he begins to wonder if Lisa and his Uncle Clayton have the right idea. However, an old friend from the FBI contacts Matthews and asks if he could go up to Lark, a small town off of Highway 59, to look into a case that might have Aryan Brotherhood ties, and Mathews cannot resist. A black man from Chicago has turned up dead in the river and three days later a young woman, who was last seen talking to the man, is pulled out of the same river. His FBI friend has heard rumors that “something is up,” but wants Matthews to check it out.
This trip up to a small town, not unlike the town where Matthews grew up (and was abandoned by his mother), not only brings up memories but plunges Matthews into a case that could get him killed or at the very least, in a lot of trouble.
In this novel, Attica Locke does a great job of immersing the reader into the world of small town Texas and to also show the strong ties people have to place and to each other—no matter how complicated and dysfunctional those ties might be.