Tag Archives: Attica Locke

Bluebird, Bluebird up for Best Novel

bluebidThe 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.

mwa_logoLiterary Lunchbox Rankings: Mystery Writers of America Edgar Award, Best Novel

  1. Bluebird Bluebird by Attica Locke
  2. The Dime by Kathleen Kent
  3. A Rising Man by Abir Mukherjee

 

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Blackwater Rising

Why is Attica Locke’s mystery novel Blackwater Rising set in 1981?  So that the protagonist, Jay Porter, can have a backstory of teenage involvement in the Black Power movement of the late 60s and early 70s. The author uses the tension associated with southern race relations to build urgency in her novel.  On her website, she explains how her family history strongly influenced her writing process.

However, I had a hard time knowing what to make of this mystery, which is one of six up for the Mystery Writers of America Edgar for Best First Novel by an American Author.

It’s certainly an American story.  Jay Porter grows up in the smart and poor in Texas, and at the age of 19, finds himself drawn to the more assertive branches of the civil rights movement, egged on by an even-more-involved white girl who disappears after Jay’s arrest and trial.  Much is made of the second chance he receives when found not guilty, and he vows to stay out of trouble.  Flash forward to 1981, when Jay is a down-at-his-heels lawyer with offices in a strip mall and clients that include ladies for hire.  Big coincidence – his old girlfriend is now mayor, playing both sides of the fence at every opportunity.  Add in black-white tensions related to union integration, an elderly nutcase who’s the lone holdout when an oil company shell is buying up all the houses in a particular area (where black sludge is rising to the surface), and a birthday cruise that is interrupted when Jay and his pregnant wife rescue a woman from a murderer.

The book’s been criticized in a review by the Washington Post for being murky and having poorly drawn characters, among other failings.  Other reviews blurbed on Locke’s website are fawning (or carefully edited). My own perspective is somewhere in between.  Jay Porter is very well-nuanced, his perspective is well-defined, and although the reader may wish at times to grab him by the shoulders and shake him for being such an idiot, he’s compelling and believable.   Other characters are more two-dimensional (although we imagine Locke sees the “did she or didn’t she” betrayal by Mayor Cynthia as adding complexity to her character) and Jay’s wife Bernie is practically a Japanese body-pillow girlfriend.

Plot-wise, Blackwater Rising suffers from a typical first novel problem – too many plot threads that all, conveniently, relate to one another and too many interwoven characters.  Locke has enough fodder in this book for several books.  And although Porter doesn’t succeed in his goal of exposing evil, in the last pages of Blackwater Rising, he has taken on the lone nutcase as a client in a civil suit.  (Can you see the second book in the series on the horizon?)

That being said, it’s still better than The Weight of Silence, so Blackwater Rising ranks #3 and Gudenkauf’s book falls to #4 on the Literary Lunchbox Edgars for Best First Novel by an American Author.

  1. Starvation Lake – Bryan Gruley
  2. A Bad Day for Sorry – Sophie Littlefield
  3. Blackwater Rising – Attica Locke
  4. The Weight of Silence – Heather Gudenkauf

Still to read: In the Shadow of Gotham (on my bedside table) and The Girl She Used to Be (I’m #1 on the library hold list).