Book review: Bluebird, Bluebird by Attica Locke

I found this book in a tiny library in my neighborhood, and what a fortuitous find. I was attracted by the title, which refers to a blues song by John Lee Hooker, and also by the cover, which features a blue sky and a rain-soaked highway that extends into East Texas, a place I’ve never been. The promise of a legal thriller in a tiny southern town drew me in.

“Bluebird, Bluebird” by Attica Locke did not disappoint me. It’s an addicting police procedural mystery with a distinct sense of place.

Darren Mathews, a black a lawman in danger of losing his Texas Ranger badge and his wife, just can’t get the murders of a poor white woman and a Chicago Law School-educated black man out of his mind. His wife wants him to come home to Houston. His boss threatens to suspend him. But Darren heads to Lark, Texas to sift through the clues: two dead bodies, a black BMW, a pine two-by-four, and a Texas bayou.

Hand on guitar strings
Blues guitar. Photo by Caio Silva on Unsplash

Set on a stretch of Highway 59, a north-south trucking route, the action takes place in a kitschy country café owned by the enigmatic Geneva Sweet and in the mansion across the road. This mansion is a replica of Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello (with a miniature of the White House out back for the dog.) The Jefferson reference is indeed foreshadowing; the motivations for murder circle around crossed bloodlines and generations-old grudges.

“The most elemental instinct in human nature is not hate but love,” Darren concludes, his case almost closed. “They were one big family.”

Family doesn’t stop tension, though, and lines of tension run through this novel as surely as Highway 59 runs through East Texas: between education and force; between law and law-keepers; between north and south; between black and white.

There are a lot of guns, and the action scenes are both thrilling and revealing. There is a lot of bourbon; I have a headache on behalf of the self-destructive hero. There are a lot of men taking justice into their own hands.

Darren’s Texas Ranger badge shows up an almost excessive number of times, and commands a respect that I, a girl from up north, don’t quite understand.

The finale turns on a real gut punch. The greasy guy I wanted to get his all along got hauled away in cuffs, but not without pulling a troubling accomplice down with him.

Then one last chord of dissonance ripples through the celebratory family barbecue at the end, keeping this book from a truly happy ending. Family history and Texas culture come together in the last pages to suggest that sometimes justice does need to make an end run around the law after all.