The third book up for the Mystery Writers of America Edgar award for Best Novel is Attica Locke’s Bluebird Bluebird. As with the two nominees I’ve reviewed so far, Bluebird is the first book in a planned series, this time featuring a black Texas Ranger named Darren Mathews. Race relations in Texas infuses Bluebird, which is unflinching in its portrayal of race-based hate crimes as well as the more complicated interpersonal relationships. Mathews’ desire to ensure a fair shake for African-Americans, both those accused and those who are victims, is what made him drop out of law school and become a Ranger… even though he may pay a big price, as his wife Lisa is looking for a stable and upwardly mobile life. She’s also not thrilled with Mathews’ drinking, and it looks like she’s right – he’s got a problem.
Mathews comes to the small town of Lark to investigate the death of Michael Wright, a black lawyer from Chicago, and also that of a young mother and blonde beauty, Missy Dale. The locals – including local law enforcement, the local branch of the Aryan Brotherhood, and what passes for the local bourgeoisie – may not be in cahoots, but they all share a desire to send Ranger Mathews back to where he came from. But Mathews is patient and persistent while looking out for the powerless. Meanwhile, back home, a grand jury is deciding whether to charge old friend Rutherford “Mack” McMillan in the shooting death of a white man who had been stalking his Mack’s granddaughter. Darren hopes his testimony cast enough doubt to keep the old man free.
Mathews has a strong suspicion that Missy’s husband, Keith Dale, killed Wright in a fit of rage when he saw his wife walking down the dark road with him, then killed his wife to silence her as a witness. But as Mathews learns why the Chicago man had come to Lark, Texas, he begins to cast a new light on the long-term relationships of the locals, and ends up solving a long-ago crime as well as the present-day murders.
Locke is the author of three previously well-received novels, including Edgar nominee Black Water Rising (which I reviewed here back in 2010!) and was a writer and producer on the Fox drama Empire. So it’s not surprising that Bluebird is well-plotted, but I didn’t see either of the two twists at the end coming. Well-done! In addition, I’m a sucker for complicated characters, and some of the people who inhabit Locke’s Texas are as real as they come.
Comparing Bluebird Bluebird to The Dime and A Rising Man, Locke does a superior job of tapping into the zeitgeist of time and place than the other authors. Her characters are also more compelling and convincing, although I’d like to see more exploration of wife Lisa. As a result, Bluebird is taking the top spot in the Literary Lunchbox ranking.
Literary Lunchbox Rankings: Mystery Writers of America Edgar Award, Best Novel