Review: Bluebird, Bluebird by Attica Locke
Bluebird, Bluebird by Attica Locke is a powerful thriller about the explosive intersection of love, race, and justice.
The first person we meet in the little Texas town of Lark is Geneva Sweet, proprietor of Geneva Sweet’s Sweets, a small roadside café where you can get a good meal washed down with iced tea—or maybe something a little stronger. We meet Geneva at the local “colored cemetery” where she’s visiting the two men in her life, her late husband Joe “Petey Pie” Sweet—a music man who was a devil on the guitar, Lord forgive him—and their son, Lil’ Joe. She brought her son an offering of two perfect peach fried pies knowing full well that as soon as she’s driven away, the groundskeeper is going to eat the pastries because one of her fried pies should never go uneaten. But before she leaves, she gives the Joes all the latest news and gossip. Or most of it anyway.
Below her, an eighteen wheeler tore down Highway 59, sending up a gust of hot gassy air through the trees. It was a warm one for October, but nowadays they all were. Near eighty today, she’d heard, and here she was thinking it was about time to pull the holiday decorations from the trailer out back of her place.Climate change they call it. This keep up and I’ll live long enough to see hell on earth, I guess. She told all this to the two men in her life. Told them about the new fabric store in Timpson. The fact that Faith was bugging her for a car. The ugly shade of yellow Wally painted the icehouse. Look like someone coughed up a big mess of phlegm and threw it on the walls.
She didn’t mention the killings though, or the trouble bubbling in town.
She gave them that little bit of peace.
What Geneva does not tell her husband and son is that a white girl named Missy Dale has washed up behind Geneva Sweet’s Sweets. Her death has got the local law all up in Geneva’s business, which is driving a lot of her customers away. And while Sheriff Van Horn and his deputy, Wally Jefferson, are eager to close the case on Missy, they’re not nearly as motivated to figure out how a black Chicago lawyer ended up dead in the local bayou, his body so battered it’s almost recognizable.
Meanwhile, in Houston, second-generation Texas Ranger Darren Matthews—still one of only a few black Rangers—is in trouble for coming to the aid of a longtime friend, Rutherford “Mack” McMillan, who has been accused of shooting a piece of white trash named Ronnie Malvo. Malvo, a member of the ABT (Aryan Brotherhood/Texas) has been terrorizing Mack’s granddaughter, and two days after an armed confrontation, Malvo turns up dead. Under pressure from his uncle and his wife to resign and go back to law school, Darren instead chooses to head down to Lark and investigate the two murders. Even before he arrives, he knows he’s looking at a race crime in a town still mired in its prejudiced past.
Author Attica Locke—whose first novel, Black Water Rising, was likewise a story of the complicated “codes” that govern race relations in the US—is an award-winning novelist and a writer/producer on Empire. A native of Houston, she knows her territory, and while every element of the story works, the dialogue is fantastic:
Vaughn was a government man through and through, dressed plainly in a blue suit and polished tan ropers. He’d been told that Darren didn’t want this indictment, that he thought the Rangers and the state of Texas were making a mistake. And he’d been sniffing out a trick on Darren’s part since they first met to prepare his testimony.
“Someone he knew, yes,” Vaughn said, glancing at the jurors. “An officer of the law, but still a friend, wouldn’t you say?”
Darren was careful with this one. “Friendly, yes.”
“Well, you drove up from Houston to help him. Don’t think you’d do that for just anyone.”
“Well, he had a known felon on his property.”
“A peckerwood, didn’t Mack call him?”
“After Malvo called him a nigger,” Darren said.
The word, laid plain in court, shot a jolt of alarm through the room. Several of the white jurors visibly tensed, as if they believed that merely saying the word aloud in mixed company might incite violence or summon Al Sharpton.
Darren may be on a different rung of the socio-economic ladder from Geneva and her customers, but he has lived by the same “code” they have his whole life. This is not true of some of the people he comes across in the course of his investigation, most notably the dead man’s widow, who has never lived down south and doesn’t understand the way things work in Texas.
Bluebird, Bluebird is Southern noir at its best, an intricately plotted, character-driven story with a solid twist at the end. There’s enough going on—Aryan Brotherhood ties, illicit sexual attraction, and tons of shared family history—to keep readers riveted even if they think they’ve figured everything out. I bet two peach fried pies they have not; Locke is deft at misdirection.