Attica Locke’s ‘Bluebird, Bluebird’ is a Shakespearean drama for our times

Heather Scott Partington

Four stars

Bluebird, Bluebird By Attica Locke, $26.

Attica Locke’s Bluebird, Bluebird is a thriller with a conscience. Locke, a producer and writer for Fox’s Empire, takes on issues of race, property and family in East Texas in this melodic rural noir.

Darren Mathews is a black Texas Ranger whose badge is jeopardized due to his personal investment in a case. He’s separated from his wife, who wants him to quit the Rangers and return to law school. But Mathews’ ties to the state run deep; he feels Texas in his blood, and a filial duty to the badge. On a tip, he finds his way to the East Texas town of Lark to investigate two deaths with suspiciously racial implications—a black Chicago lawyer who had no business being in the area, and a local white woman, both of whom were found in the same bayou.

Locke’s plot is Shakespearean, owing its tension to extramarital affairs and a tiny community in which friends and enemies keep each others’ secrets. What makes it accessible and contemporary are the subtlety of the author’s details; Locke writes complex characters with colloquial ease, often dropping compelling details into stretches about how a character eats or wears his clothes. When a Fed arrives on the scene of the crime to take credit for Mathews’ investigation, he has “the appearance of an adolescent boy squeezed into his only good suit for a funeral no one saw coming, a suit he’d long outgrown.” Lark is full of distrusting citizens, intertwined families and a newly emboldened group of white supremacists; Locke creates a town that breathes blues and beats with familiar warmth between those whose lives have been intertwined for generations.

“There were things you just didn’t do in Lark, Texas,” the author writes, “and picking apart bloodlines was one of them.” When Mathews looks too long into the ancestral ties of the town’s oldest citizens, he endangers his own life and risks his investigation. Locke avoids a surface-level discussion of hate crimes and racial tension by getting to the core of obsession; her characters’ lives are so dependent on one another for love and enmity that they don’t know how to live apart.

Bluebird, Bluebird is ultimately more about love than hate, and about how there’s as much injustice in a case left intentionally cold as there is in a wrongful conviction. “It both saddened and infuriated [Mathews]... justice and despondency were so inextricably intertwined that the former was not often worth the trouble of the latter.”

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