Darren Matthews is a hard-drinking, black Texas Ranger. His job and his marriage are hanging by a thread after a friend asked him for help and the other guy wound up dead. He is still on suspension when he takes it on himself to, at an FBI buddy’s urging, head out of town to investigate the deaths of a local white woman and a black man passing through rural east Texas.
Bluebird, Bluebird is set in east Texas in the Piney Woods along Highway 59. The copy describes it as “rural noir” and it was the winner of the 2018 Edgar Award for Best (mystery) Novel. It works well enough as a mystery for me (but then I have never been a mystery fan). It is fairly classed as country noir (my preferred term for the subgenre), although it fits somewhat uneasily. But the two complement each other and make for a stronger book viewed with both aspects in mind.
Darren steps into a tense situation. He is on thin ice with his bosses. The local sheriff in Lark never requested assistance from the Rangers. The “order of the killings: black man dies, then the white girl . . . didn’t fit any agreed-upon American script.” The local black community is on edge and no more interested in talking to him than local law enforcement. And the local icehouse is thick with the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas. Darren has a special interest in the ABT, but they may have a special interest in him too.
The driving force behind the book and my favorite part is the dichotomy Darren represents. He is a Texas Ranger torn between two opposing views represented by his uncles—the lawman who died in the line of duty and the constitutional law professor. He was set to follow in the footsteps of the latter until Jasper. Rather than turn his head in shame from his home state, Darren quits law school at the University of Chicago and heads home to go into law enforcement. “Like his people, Matthews men going back generations, he was not going to be run off.” Darren is constitutionally inclined to not just back down from a fight but to head towards the fight that needs fighting.
With local law enforcement out for blood from the local black community over a white girl’s death and shrugging off a black man’s death, the tension between the overpolicing and underpolicing of black communities is a major theme. The latter gets far too little attention in the public discourse.
Locke’s first two books are set in Houston, and Darren is based out of Houston. Both bring a dim view of small town America that hurts the book. One, it undercuts the thread of racial injustice that runs through the book because it downplays continuing issues in major American cities. Two, realism is hardly required, but it detracts from the story rather than add to it, unlike, say, the use of the blues and of the white supremacist gang.
But the second half of the book starts to peel back the layers on a Lark that is a lot more complex than Darren realized. One thing that is very realistic is the way that the small town deals with secrets. Secrets aren’t really secrets in a small town. People may not talk about it, but what need is there to talk about what everybody already knows? That doesn’t stop people from guarding those secrets jealously, even where the consequences can be deadly.
Bluebird, Bluebird isn’t an action-heavy book, but that scene at the icehouse? I think I held my breath through that entire scene.
Bluebird, Bluebird is being developed for TV by FX, is the first book in a series, and is out in paperback on Tuesday, August 28.
3.5 of 5 Stars.
Jaundréa Clay at The Houston Chronicle – review.
Jay Roberts at Mystery Scene Mag – review.
Marilyn Brooks at Marilyn’s Mystery Reads – review.
Barbara Fister at Reviewing the Evidence – review.
Cathy at What Cathy Read Next – review.
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