If you like detective novels and police procedurals with twists and turns as well as a bit of depth that makes the story and characters feel both familiar and refreshing then my book review of Bluebird, Bluebird by Attica Locke is for you.
Reviewing books for Noire Histoir has occupied the majority of my reading time so most of the books I’ve read in recent years have focused on Black history and/or cultural fiction. I’m never going to lose interest in those topics but wanted to mix it up a bit. Outside of history I also enjoy true crime, thrillers, and a variety of other genres. I figured there had to be thrillers or detective novels written by Black authors that focused on Black characters. In the course of that search, I came across quite a few titles that I added to my reading list, Bluebird, Bluebird by Attica Locke was one of them.
As with most books, I read the summary to get a feel for if it might be a good fit for a Noire Histoir book review. I try to ensure that they have enough depth so there’s more to analyze and discuss beyond the particular moments that I liked or disliked. My goal is to give not quite a synopsis of the book but rather an overview before delving more deeply into my interpretation of things such as symbolism, themes, etc. Quite often books and movies are enjoyable but don’t necessarily fit my criteria for discussion so I end up reading a lot more books than I actually review. I was pleasantly surprised that despite the genre Bluebird, Bluebird made the cut.
In watching many movies and television shows, police officers are often portrayed as being aggressive, dysfunctional, hyper-masculine, and violent. Some might say it’s fiction and doesn’t have any real impact on society. But, it’s not that simple if we take into consideration where children and teens get the inspiration for the careers they’d like to pursue when they grow up. Children and teens are constantly fed images of police officers using violence and aggression in the course of their work. What does that then teach kids about the characteristics needed to be an effective police officer? Or if being a police officer is promoted as an opportunity to chase down “perps”, shoot guns, and “bust heads” what kind of people would be attracted to such a job?
Darren Matthews is a Black Texas Ranger from a rural area in East Texas. At first glance, Bluebird, Bluebird somewhat follows the currently popular formula of a law enforcement officer who has gone outside the law and is in trouble with his superiors. But I liked that the events surrounding his suspension aren’t that simple and neither is the ranger or the rest of the story.
Matthews’ parents were too young and immature to raise him so his older uncles became his adoptive parents. The men were strong influences on his character with their different professions and perspectives pulling him in different directions. His uncles both saw themselves as working for the betterment of Black people but had different perspectives on what methods would be most effective. One uncle, an academic and attorney, believed in fighting institutional racism from within the courtroom as a defense attorney and thus encouraged Darren to pursue a law degree. His other uncle who is described as the first Black Texas Ranger believed that the way forward was for more Black people to become law enforcement officers. They could then personally ensure that Black people are kept safe and justice is equally served.
Despite loving East Texas, Darren left the area for a few years to attend college. While away at school, Darren heard about the murder of James Byrd, Jr. in Jasper, Texas and felt compelled to do something. That event which cast a light on the simmering racism in Texas combined with love and pride in the land that had been owned by his family for generations inspired Darren to return home and become a Texas Ranger.
Along the way he met and fell in love with the woman who would become his wife. Hailing from elsewhere and seeing great potential in Darren, she doesn’t understand why he insists on being a Texas Ranger when he could be an attorney. The couple loves each other but a major point of contention in their marriage is that they have vastly different hopes and visions for their futures. At the start of the book, Darren is once again wrapped up in some work-related mess which has in part led to him being on the outs with his wife.
The specter of the Aryan Brotherhood looms large throughout the book but that’s only because it’s the more blatant racist power structure within the state and the story. Less obvious but arguably even more dangerous is the subtle racism that permeates law enforcement, the justice system, and other areas of East Texas society.
It turns out that Darren has been suspended because he involved himself in a situation where an older Black man and his family were being harassed by a member of the Aryan Brotherhood. As an acquaintance of the older man, Darren came to his aide rather than advising the man to call the police. While Darren is able to deescalate the situation, the harasser continues to cause problems for the men when he turns up dead a few days later. This brought the older man under suspicion for murder and Darren for scrutiny for possibly being inappropriately involved.
As the reader, we don’t know if the old man killed the other guy but we’re pretty clear that Darren wasn’t involved in the murder. His possible involvement in the events after the murder is less clear. But overall, the situation poses some questions about the justice system and who laws are designed to protect. I’ve never been to Texas but from what I know about the state it has strong gun owner rights and castle doctrine laws. It was quite a bit of commentary that the old Black man’s actions were called into question. He was defending himself, his family, and his property against a White man who was trespassing. You can’t help but wonder about how different the narrative would have been if the situation involved a Black man trespassing to harass the female relative of an older White man. The crazy thing is that the whole situation occurs before the start of the book and isn’t the main story but rather some background.
While working at the Texas Rangers, Darren had hoped to create and work within a division focused on prosecuting hate crimes and hate groups such as the Aryan Brotherhood. Instead of his ambition and ideas being welcomed by management, his interest in this area of law enforcement led to him being viewed as a potential problem. Suspended and on the outs with management at the Texas Rangers, Darren has some downtime while he prepares to testify at the murder trial and his disciplinary hearing. A colleague reaches out to tell him about two murders that have taken place in Lark, a small town in East Texas.
Lark shares a lot of similarities with the area where Darren grew up and with the murders possibly having a racial angle, he allows himself to be talked into visiting the town to see what he can find out. Michael Wright was a 35-year-old Black lawyer from another town in Texas. He had moved to Chicago but was in town visiting at the time of his death. About a week later, Missy Dale, a young local White woman was also found dead. On the surface, the two deaths seem possibly connected because it’s a small town and the bodies were found near the same bayou within just days of each other.
As a small town without much to see or do, people are usually just passing through Lark if they aren’t from or don’t have ties to the area. In a town where everyone knows everyone, Darren automatically sticks out when he shows up and starts asking questions. On the Black side of town at Geneva Sweet’s diner, the local Black gathering place, people are suspicious of Darren because he’s a random stranger poking around what feels like a racially motivated murder.
On the White side of town is Jeff’s Juice House, which despite the name is not a place to get fresh-squeezed orange juice or smoothies. Jeff’s has rumored ties to the Aryan Brotherhood and attracts a rather rough bunch of patrons. Darren is unwelcomed as he’s not just a stranger asking questions but a Black man who is perceived to be acting above his station. On that side of town, Darren being a ranger is often met with a mixture of respect for the position but a sort of loathing for him wearing the badge.
Complicating matters is that as a Ranger, Darren is not a local officer but rather an agent of a statewide agency. Like other states, the Rangers can be called in to investigate cases that are beyond the capabilities of local law enforcement or in instances where there might be a conflict of interest. In this instance, there is a local sheriff but given his ties to members of the community, he seems potentially biased and too close to the situation. It also becomes clear that he’s more interested in just closing the cases rather than figuring out what happened. His sense of control and authority is threatened when Darren arrives and starts asking him questions while independently investigating the deaths.
There are a host of other characters from both sides of town and while some of them feel like cliché stereotypes, somehow it all works together. At points, I ended up being more interested in the town’s people and their secrets than the murder victims. The one iffy character was Michael’s estranged wife, Randie, who came to town from Chicago to make arrangements and figure out what happened. I didn’t necessarily dislike the character but felt that she wasn’t as fleshed out or complex as I would have liked. She felt very similar to Darren’s wife in the sense that they’re a bit simplistic and constantly nag and complain.
Most people know that there’s a way to speak to someone if you need something from them. I get that Randie was upset and distraught but some of her actions made no sense. She came across as being socially inept and a bit of a bull in a china shop. It’s explained in part as her not being from Texas and being unaware of the social norms. But it struck me as being fairly unbelievable. I think this stems from a stereotype that some people in the South have about people from the North being rude and lacking social graces.
Regardless of those minor shortcomings, the more I read, the more I enjoyed Bluebird, Bluebird and the character of Darren Matthews. Sometimes it can feel like if you’ve read one detective novel or police procedural then you’ve read them all. But I felt that Darren was a bit refreshing because he’s not a jerk as a police officer nor is he a hot mess of a man outside of the uniform. While he’s passionate about his job, he realizes the flaws in the system and wants to be a part of the solution. He’s not perfect outside of work but is a loving and faithful husband who places a great deal of importance on family and takes pride in where he comes from.
I enjoyed the twists and turns of the case and reading about him gathering information and putting all of the pieces together. Instead of him just coming in guns blazing, he instead tries to build connections with the people in town and takes his time getting to know them and their backstories.
Another thing that added a bit of depth to the book is that other subtle things are going on in addition to the deaths. One of which is the unwritten social rules that exist in the South and particularly in this area. It’s interesting to see Darren and Randie who are both Black but from different places and social classes attempt to navigate this environment.
There’s also a theme of secrets and complex family histories where things aren’t always simple or as they seem. Like Darren, some of the residents of Lark have lived in their hometown for all their lives. Their families have lived in the area for generations, some going back one hundred or two hundred years. And regardless of race, they’ve had interactions with each other for generations. As a result, there are these old hurts and old wounds that were inflicted in the not so distant past and that history plays a role in the present. On the surface, things seem to have improved, changed, and progressed. But the reality is that there’s all of this underlying history that hasn’t been dealt with but remains just below the surface ready to break loose.
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