Review – Elkins, “Legacy of Violence”

Caroline Elkins, “Legacy of Violence: A History of the British Empire” (2022) – The main thing with the British is how they’ve gotten away with it, all of it. The worst they’ve ever gotten in return for all the dirt they’ve done was some aerial bombing — by the one enemy they actually looked good next to, classic sociopath’s luck — and then spending a few decades looking a bit like a (prosperous, safe) joke-country. Defenders of the British empire like Niall Ferguson can not only acquire the kind of respectability it’d be impossible to acquire defending any other empire, but they can also pretend they’re somehow intellectual underdogs. They all act like “we already went through this,” “this” being any kind of meaningful reckoning with what empire meant, and you know that “this,” in substance, meant little Niall and undergrad Andy and hungover 10 AM history seminar (no 9s or 8s for Oxbridge boys I bet) Boris had to hear a couple of fellow students wax indignant once or twice. Man… what the Germans or the Russians wouldn’t give to have THAT have been, continue to be, their comeuppance!

Caroline Elkins pisses those people off like nobody’s business. While she builds on the work of and acknowledges many previous generations of anti-imperialists, she seems poised to be the one to lay the foundation for something like a real intellectual reckoning with what the British Empire meant. If, down the line, we flinch from Empire the way we flinch from Nazism or “actually existing Communism” — not intellectually get that it was bad, but flinch, have it built into our historical reflexes — Caroline Elkins, and this book, will probably have a lot to do with that. 

The subtitle here is “A History of the British Empire.” That is a large subject. This is a large book. Elkins, a professor at Harvard (and, I’m told, a Watertown resident! Caroline! Get at me! Let’s have beers and play keno at Mount Auburn Grill! Bring the wife and kids I learned about from the acknowledgments!), makes a number of choices here calculated to land this book with maximum impact. She tells the history of the empire through its dual experiments in violence: learning to use violence to maximum effect to maintain a world-spanning and profitable empire, and finding ways to legitimize that violence within a philosophy of liberal imperialism. 

Most of what Elkins writes about the nineteenth century lays groundwork. Liberal imperialism as a philosophy comes not handed down from a Marx figure, but as a kludge, assembled from the results of battles in parliament and the papers over what Britain’s empire meant in the nineteenth century. Edmund Burke may have led the charge against abuses by the East India Company, but his anti-imperialism wasn’t so stiff that his criticisms could not be absorbed into later iterations of imperial technique, especially once John Company had outlived its usefulness. Crises like the Great Mutiny of 1857 and the Boer Wars at the turn of the 20th century refined both the techniques and the ideologies of Empire — and later for how Elkins relates the two — into a reasonably coherent body that Elkins spends the bulk of the book examining- the British Empire of the twentieth century. 

Focusing as much as Elkins does on the twentieth century, and especially on post-WWII British imperialism, is a peculiar but considered choice. The owl of Minerva takes wing at dusk, one of the old Germans the British did their best to not think about informs us, and British imperialism took on its most articulate and fully fleshed out form as it was indisputably in decline, at the very least decline relative to other, younger global powers. More than that, focusing on twentieth century imperial conflicts forces the reader to stop thinking of the British empire as some weird old anachronism, something involving powdered wigs and wooden ships. Many of the worst crimes of the British Empire took place contemporaneously to the great ideologically-motivated crimes we are all taught to loathe, to organize our social orders around avoiding repeating. Some of them took place after a British judge sat on the bench at Nuremberg.

India, Ireland, Palestine, Kenya, Malaya… tied together more than being victimized by the same empire, but often by the same personnel. Black and Tans picked up stakes to suppress the Arab uprising against the British Mandate in Palestine, and often the Zionist revolt a decade and change later in the same place. Palestine veterans, in turn, made their way to Malaya to fight the Emergency and to Kenya to suppress the Mau Mau (the latter being the subject of Elkins’ first book). Plenty of them wound up back in Ireland to deal with The Troubles once they kicked off in the late sixties. Everywhere, these personnel, and the London-based imperial bureaucrats who deployed them, cross-pollinated techniques of repression: emergency suspension of civil liberties, economic denial often past the point of starvation, forced relocation, encouragement of ethnic and sectarian division, torture, kill squads. Everywhere, the same, shifting but essentially coherent, body of ideological techniques as well: the liberal civilizing mission and demonization of anti-imperial fighters, control of information in and out of the war zone, careful attention paid to public relations, appeals to sentimental victimhood (dead settlers, traumatized and betrayed veterans of hard wars) and erasure of the many, many more victims they themselves created. Often enough, the literal erasure, through bonfires of records when the Tommies bugged out from Nairobi, Kuala Lumpur, Delhi, Tel Aviv, of the records of what they had done.

Elkins tells it all, chapter and verse, not glosses like with the Mutiny and other nineteenth century episodes but gritty, granular examinations of the dirty wars of the fading twentieth century Empire. Just as Whigs and Tories bickered over management of the Empire at its heyday (even producing opposite condemnations, not that they ever picked up enough traction to really stop the train) but united in dedication to it, so too did Churchill’s Conservatives and Bevin’s Labour remain equally committed, for much longer than we normally associate with either party, to liberal imperialism. After all, they had to somehow recover their economic position after two devastating world wars. One of the reasons they held onto Malaya as hard as they did was that the colony’s tin and rubber production brought in dollars, the international currency that replaced the pound sterling.

But it’s not all dollars and cents (or pounds and pence or whatever made up Harry Potter ass words they use over there). And it’s not all ideology and nostalgia. One of Elkins’s strengths is the way she not only refuses to engage in boring “intentionalism vs structuralism” style debates- she treats them as though they weren’t even there, which, honestly, is one of the better ways of getting across the fundamental truth that interest and ideology mutually constitute each other. Add a third element in there, too- technique.

Let’s put cards on the table- for all the dirt they did, the British Empire didn’t do literal, Treblinka-style death camps. They routed almost the whole Kikuyu population and numerous other Kenyans besides into concentration camps, and thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands (it’s hard to say with all those torched records) died there, many of them tortured to death. But they weren’t sent there specifically to die (complete with special industrial mass murder machines), as part of a specific plan to eliminate the Kikuyu from the earth.

Well… the thing with the Holocaust is it actually got a few useful things into the thick heads of the whites. It’s a good thing we memetically associate many bad things — book burnings, open embrace of war and evil, fascism, etc. — with outsized horror and avoid them, to the degree that the lesson has really stuck. So you can see why we don’t want to “relativize” these things. And I don’t think we have to relativize the Holocaust in order to get the point across that there were, are, a lot of ways to be horrific, to be mass murderers on a historical scale, to commit crimes, as the Church fathers used to say, “that cry to heaven for vengeance” (well, the Church fathers including gay stuff in that category, which doesn’t make any sense, but it’s a good turn of phrase).

But what we probably should do is recouple existential horror to a wider range of crimes. After all, as historians have been carefully pointing out, much of the Holocaust itself didn’t take place in the six death camps, but in fields and alleys all across the German war zone- the “Holocaust by bullet” in places like Babi Yar, starvation and disease in the ghettos. These things look less like some expression of unique bureaucratic-Teutonic evil and a lot more like what other empires do. It looks a lot like what the Soviet Union did around the same time, what the US did to Native Americans, and, more to the point, what the British did — what the British were doing, what they would do again — to colonial subjects.

The point isn’t that Nazis were or weren’t worse or better than British imperialists. That’s a stupid and childish way to look at it. The Nazis had a situation, the British had a situation. They had ideologies and interests that constituted each other. I would say the Nazi ideology was, in most sense, dumber than the British one, but this book also shows up just how dumb these supposedly clever British imperialists could be. In the Nazi situation, both an interest in trying to carve a continental empire out of Europe, and ideologies that both preceded that project (but were partially generated from many of the same factors that led Germans to think their empire was workable- like a certain lack of opportunities in other parts of the world to work their will) and were radicalized by it, created the horror of the Holocaust. Other situations — mostly a situation of massive but fading and endangered international strength, and much more pliable ideologies than the Nazis usually had — generated the British horrors.

I say all this as someone who is not a pacifist, who is willing to fight, to countenance and, if needs be, do hard and dark things, for freedom and for the ability of the people to thrive. But the thing with all of these crimes is how arbitrary, how pointless they were to any end other than allowing some privileged gang to thrive. Sometimes it was big gangs — the great big gang of Anglo settler culture, they just needed their “elbow room” no matter how many people had to be killed or enslaved to do it — sometimes it was little gangs, some racial or political elite. But it was never really for freedom, except in the sense that some people got the “freedom” to do what they want at the expense of vast numbers of others. The biggest mass killings you got for that happened with decolonization- Haiti, Algeria, the actual revolutionary stages in places like France, Russia, and China before their mass killings turned into ways to consolidate the power of an elite.

Maybe you’re the sort of person who flinches from a bomb in a cafe or a guillotined aristocrat in a way you don’t from starving Bengalis or a round dozen, at least, nations of this Earth plunged into endless ethnic strife by imperial endgames. Sometimes that does seem like a pretty basic divide- those who can really make themselves feel sorry for Marie Antoinette in the tumbril, but can pass over however many French kids died of diptheria and hunger to buy her jewels (to say nothing of how many were enslaved in the Indies for the same end) with an “oh, dear,” and those who have the opposite reaction. And there’s those who feel bad about both, about neither, etc., I get that. But pathos-directionality divergence does seem pretty fundamental, almost pre-political. There’s patterns — we’ve made Sad Aristocrats the basic element of real pathos from Burke’s day to Sophia Coppola’s, you need to flash kids with bloated starvation bellies to wring a dime out of most Anglos for Sad Poors and even then we can change the channel — but it does seem some people are just more receptive to one or another type of pathos than others. It’s worrisome.

Well! We’ve gone far afield. Oh well. “Legacy of Violence” is an excellent book. It is not a perfect book. The writing is sometimes a little rushed-seeming. There’s stuff to nitpick, and one thing Tories can do is pick the shit out of nits. The effort involved to make us understand the Empire in the horror that it deserves, she has to a lot of lumping. This shows up most notably in the category of Liberal Imperialism, which she clearly is trying to punt into the category of Bad Ideologies To Be Scared Of, like Fascism and, for most people, Communism. I question whether we’re not operating in enemy terrain, here- that accepting their category schema doesn’t necessarily mean accepting their categories, and trying to modify the schema is doomed to failure. But then I think… well, nothing else has worked. And Elkins is trying, and there’s at least some evidence that hammering the point home, with a lack of interest in niceties that’s less pointed and more just sheer eagerness for getting an actual point across, is exactly what we need. *****

Review – Elkins, “Legacy of Violence”

Review – Gross, Concord Histories

Robert Gross, “The Minutemen and Their World” (1976) and “The Transcendentalists and Their World” (2021) – Forty five years is a long time in history! And let’s be real, a somewhat less long time in the rather slow-moving world of academic history. Robert Gross started “The Minutemen and Their World” near the high water mark of social history in the American academy. Minute studies of New England towns were in! It helped that we Yankees are meticulous record keepers. There’s a cruel parody of every historiographical school implicit in its work, no matter how generative. The American social historians never had that Hobsbawm-Thompson of their British counterparts/inspirations. You kind of got the idea they thought they were getting away with something. “We can… we can parse old tax records and not make a point about them but consider it ‘history from below’ because it’s not about famous people?!”

Anyhoo, Gross saw where the wind was blowing and he was writing just before the bicentennial, so he got to have his cake and eat it too. He could comb the finely-kept records of the Concord burghers, and tie it in to a larger political point, i.e., how did these people convince themselves to take on an Empire they were just recently pretty proud to be in on? 

Truth be told there’s more burgherdom than revolution — more “world” than “Minutemen” — but honestly, that’s ok. Concord was a world on the move! You might just assume it would be anyway because it was a colony, all rough and new. But it was a hundred fifty years old by 1775! It was the first Puritan settlement away from the sight of the ocean in Massachusetts. Moreover, the Puritan fathers weren’t… well, it’s complicated, and Gross doesn’t analyze it closely. The Puritans were capitalists, some of the most important proto-capitalists. But they really didn’t seem to think a lot about the potentially socially corrosive effects of capitalism, or if they did, they thought that, I don’t know, prayer and surveillance could fix it?

I was going to say the Puritans weren’t big “opportunity people,” and maybe that is right- their capitalism was the frowny Weberian kind, where you thank your stern god for his sufficiency. They were “harmony people.” They wanted everyone on the same page. They wanted to do a Heaven LARP until god pulled the plug on this whole “material reality” farce. What did that mean a century and a half on? It meant Concord didn’t know how they were going to keep sons on the farm. Land was expensive and not super great to begin with. Open lands in places we don’t think of now as “open land” — Worcester County! Vermont! — beckoned. Social control was strict in Concord and people got in big theological pissing contests. They were definitely better off than they’d likely be in Britain. But they weren’t as well off as they’d like.

A general rise of individualism connects “The Minutemen and Their World” and the book released forty five years later, “The Transcendentalists and Their World.” The Minutemen beat the British! That was unexpected! It helps that the British used relative kid gloves on them, as fellow white English-speaking Protestants. About fifty years later, Concord is going pretty well after recovering from the time of troubles around 1812, but still needs to figure out what exactly it’s for, other than a springboard to places west. Industrialization is creeping in, and going past the traditional mechanic-operator-owned shops to big mills worked by a proletariat. Lowell is in full swing and often wants to steal the courthouse — it was a good thing to have the county courthouse in your town back then — from Concord, which the townsfolk fend off with their establishment political muscle. Even as Puritanism receded, the established political powers of New England sought harmony and order over most other social considerations.

How you gonna keep ‘em down on the farm once they’ve seen Andy? Andy Jackson, that is. Jackson never won Massachusetts, or came close (New Hampshire, on the other hand…). But Jacksonian politics shattered New England’s elite-run politics. In some places, including Concord, it took the form of Anti-Masonic politics. A lot of big shots in Concord (and elsewhere, including a certain Tennessean President) were Freemasons, so inchoate populism streamed that way (a similar dynamic prevailed with the Know-Nothings a generation later). Even where Jackson’s enemies prevailed, they had to learn to play the game on something like his terms, appealing to the populace, modifying old laws, and in general learning to act in a master-race-democracy polity rather than an (also racist) aristocratic-republican one. Say what you will, but he put himself at the head of a political shift that knew what time it was. 

What did all that mean for Concord and the Transcendentalists? Well… vibes, I guess? A general effort to figure out a society where there was — along with everything else — a pretty unprecedented degree of individual opportunity? I can hear people flinching away from that. I know! Most people didn’t have a lot of opportunity. I know that “opportunity” is one of those sacred words like “courage” (we don’t want to say Andrew Jackson had that, because it’s sacred and he was bad, but…). But… maybe it shouldn’t be? Maybe it’s purely fucking circumstantial? Maybe people shouldn’t need a fairy godmother of opportunity to bless them to have a decent life? And every other empire on earth had similar structures keeping out-groups from accessing the fairy godmother, and a smaller in-group. That’s all I’m saying about America. It figured out how to do a big in-group. Slavery and the destruction and dispossession of indigenous people was a prerequisite for it. I’m not saying it was great. 

And, in many respects, the Transcendentalists became the poets and philosophers of that society and its opportunities. There were others, and vast portions of that society — anyone south of New York, basically — had nothing good to say about Emerson, Thoreau, or their milieu. But, like Yankees playing the Jacksonian politics game, eventually, Southrons learned to play the Emersonian personhood game. Emerson, for his part, learned it by navigating between various factions in and around Concord. There’s the elitism of the high toned Whigs, but spiritualized- anyone could be a great soul, just like Jacksonian Democracy promised (to whites). Emerson’s Concord was only a few years out from the Unitarians basically hijacking the Massachusetts religious establishment, and a lot of Emerson’s idea of man’s relationship to the spiritual world came from them… but the Trinitarians (which eventually became Congregationalists), who held to something like the orthodox New England faith, showed how emotional appeals could actually touch people, in the way that chilly Unitarian reasonability couldn’t, so Emerson learned to take from that, too. He talked reform and was at least somewhat anti-slavery… but the real reform, as far as he was concerned, was realizing you are, in fact, fantastic, if only you realize it, the original notionally-progressive self-help hack. 

Honestly, I see more of this in Emerson than European romanticism, but what do I know? It surprises me that a curmudgeon like Carlyle would hang with this dude, but Emerson could be a mean prick too, and you gotta figure Carlyle wouldn’t look the gift horse of an American publicist in the mouth… people in the expanding south and west might have seen Emerson’s irreligion and light-abolitionism as a threat (you have to figure they just thought Thoreau was a piker and fake), but they embraced something of his anything goes — except politics! which are stupid — ethos, the idea that the individual is the basis of all good, not necessarily because said individual is the ol’ image-and-likeness, but not not because of that, either! Because Emerson copped more attitudes than he actually staked claims, it’s possible to integrate him into all kinds of projects of personal fulfillment. The South would soon be so thoroughly dominated by slaver politics that you couldn’t afford to praise Emerson for generations hence, but again- Jackson never got close to winning Massachusetts, either.

Like the Minutemen book, the Transcendentalists book is more “world” than the subjects, and honestly, that’s a good thing. As you can probably tell I am not a fan of the Transcendentalists. It’s hard out there, for an appreciator of New England’s intellectual heritage who doesn’t actually like a lot of New England thinkers! Gross, forty-five years into a tenured career, sees it all for the good. It probably was, for him. Anyway! This was respectable social history with a good intellectual soupçon. ****/****’

Review – Gross, Concord Histories

Review – Carlyle, “The French Revolution”

Thomas Carlyle, “The French Revolution: a History” (1837) – I don’t know, man. I’m not sure what I’m supposed to get out of this (he said, about the book he assigned himself). Apparently this was a standard work once! It doesn’t surprise me that a round denunciation of the French Revolution would become a standard anglophone work on it- that’s still viable today. I guess I’m a little surprised that this massive, discursive mess that takes for granted a pretty substantial knowledge of the players going in was as big a deal as it was. Because Carlyle, romantic elitist sage that he was, does nothing so pedestrian as “begin at the beginning” or “explain the significance of any of the people in the narrative” or “have a written thesis.” He just blusters. He blusters learnedly, with some good turns of phrase, and an impressive ability to project his feelings (almost always disdain), but still. Shows how relatively unlearned even educated people are now! Barely anyone knows who Madame Du Barry was, or why she was important, or the Necker affair or whatever. I know the French Revolution pretty well for a nonspecialist but would still get lost sometimes.

Still and all, frustration won out over intellectual insecurity in reading this. Carlyle doesn’t argue, really, but he gets his point across- disdain, universal disdain, disdain given just enough contrast to some theoretical world of worth to even exist, an oxygen to fuel Carlyle’s smoky peat fire of secular damnation. That dingdong Curtis “Mencius Moldbug” Yarvin cites Carlyle as his intellectual master and you can see why, not that that fatuous nerd would be fit to edit Carlyle’s copy on one of the Scottish prick’s bad days. Carlyle could make a point when he wanted to. He was quite explicit about what he thought about black people and slave emancipation, for instance. He used the bare minimum of wordy bush-beating that a Victorian sage could get away with there! He was pithy with Margaret Fuller when he insisted she accept the universe (his, though, it went without saying, not her Yankee vibration). 

But I notice one bunch who our enterprising Scot seemed kind of leery of, even though he blames the French Revolution and whatever came from it on them: the philosophes. I came in expecting some good, ripe Frenchie-smarty-pants punching, and I did not get it! Many lesser lights have made Rousseau, Diderot, Voltaire and company rhetorical pin cushions. They’re not hard targets! But while Carlyle, in as close to a real argument as he comes, strongly implies that it was the philosophes who ushered in the “age of paper” that allowed the sans culottes to run wild and cause all the problems, he never really comes to grips with them, never gives them a real working over. Was he… scared? Did he figure that argument by implication — “we all know what was wrong with philosophy, guys” — would play better? Probably a reasonable assumption in his time and place. Who knows! Maybe I’ll read a Carlyle biography someday and find out. I hear he had a peach of a marriage! **’

Review – Carlyle, “The French Revolution”

Review – Barbet, Eridanus books

Really, how could I resist??

Pierre Barbet, “The Napoleons of Eridanus” (1970) and “The Emperor of Eridanus” (1982) (translated from the French by Stanley Hochman) – I know you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but when it features robots in napoleonic garb, has that DAW yellow spine, and costs two dollars, you just pick it up. That was the situation with prolific French scifi writer Pierre Barbet’s “The Napoleons of Eridanus” (original title: “Les Grognards d’Eridane”) when I found it on some used bookstore spree or another. I was also jazzed by the back cover, calling on the war-gaming subculture — and this was the seventies, real motherfucking cardboard-pusher hours — to embrace this novel of ultra-civilized aliens recruiting Napoleonic soldiers to lead them against space invaders.

Well, I read it, and it was… fine! Not quite as fun as I was expecting. The aliens — sybaritic brains-in-robot-suits — use telepathy to smooth out most of the bumps that came after they jacked eight or so French soldiers from the retreat from Moscow. The grognards, led by Captain Bernard, stomp everyone’s ass at space war, first their hosts’ enemies, then their hosts. They’re Napoleonic badasses, they’re not gonna take orders from a bunch of robo-wusses forever. Everyone else makes war following the orders of computers, but Bernard and company have good old human initiative and brutality. They basically don’t lose, and even when one of them dies, the hosts just clone him. This is a thing you see in pulp scifi, sometimes- the ubermenschen too uber to lose a round, except maybe once, through treachery, as the climax… and they usually come back and win that round, too.

The first one was still reasonably fun. I made a classic mistake and ordered the sequel before I read the original (it was pretty cheap). I had the idea I would try to dust off my French and read the third one, which hadn’t been translated into English. Well, the second one might explain it. Published twelve years after “Les Grognards,” Barbet is really phoning it in for “L’Empereur.” Bernard’s in charge! But the whole galaxy unites against him. He gets arrogant. Rival space empire Itain uses its space navy, led by Lenson (yes, it’s that lazy), to contain him, really breaking down the metaphor because, like, it’s space… it’s mostly fleet actions? It’s just beat for beat the Napoleonic Wars in space. Bernard invades some space-Russia and it’s all over. He can’t beat the weather! His last act as space-emperor is to have the host send him and his posse back to where they were on Earth when they got picked up, and wipe their memories of the whole thing. Done and done! It was pretty lame. 

I’m still curious about Barbet. He wrote a lot! Including a story where aliens show up during the Middle Ages, only to piss off the Knights Templars so bad that the knights learn to do space stuff to convert the galaxy to Catholicism, etc. They have another involving a Carthaginian empire that left Rome in the dust, and that idea always intrigued me too. The “Cosmic Crusader” books are translated, the Carthage ones aren’t. We’ll see what I can do- when I read French, I usually wind up writing a lot of it down anyway, so maybe I can produce some “quick and dirty” translations. Stick it on the job queue! *** (Les Grognards)/* (L’Empereur)

Review – Barbet, Eridanus books

Review – Locke, Highway 59 books

Attica Locke, “Bluebird, Bluebird” (2017) and “Heaven, My Home” (2019) (read by J.D. Jackson) – These are some good — one good, one great, I’d say — recent crime novels! Attica Locke writes novels and for tv (apparently the show “Empire”? I used to see ads for it). These are the first two of her “Highway 59” books (there aren’t any others out right now but it seems clear from the cliffhangers that she’s planning more). One of the joys of crime writing is the sense of place crime writers usually include in their books. Highway 59 runs through East Texas, and Locke incorporates the place-ness of East Texas into the books, the aesthetics but also the characters and the plots.

Locke’s protagonist is Texas Ranger Darren Mathews, a scion of a family of black rural Texas smallholders with a proud tradition of public service. Not the least of Mathews’ quandaries spans the distance between the seedy situations Mathews finds himself in and the multiple, not quite coinciding codes: that of being a “race man” and member of a family that sees itself as upholding black independence, that of being a cop (especially a Ranger- the Rangers were basically an Anglo-Texan death squad for a long time), etc. These quandaries intersect, in the time-honored crime fiction way, with the cases Ranger Mathews encounters in these two books. 

There’s an overarching case that ties into Mathews’ larger ambition as a Ranger. He wants to do in the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas, the local instantiation of the hyper-violent white supremacist prison gang that began in California. That’s what he works on with the Rangers, as part of a task force. An ABT affiliate got dead after confronting an old family friend of Mathews, where Ranger Mathews tried to deescalate. We don’t know what happened to that Nazi (well, we find out at the end of the second book but I don’t need to say here, it’s pretty good), but Mathews tries to defend the family friend — another representative of the world of old-time post-Emancipation black families that managed to hold on to their piece of rural East Texas in the face of what the white world could throw at them — in a way that both challenges his commitment to the letter of the law and also opens him to manipulation by bad actors. 

Mathews has to deal with this in the context of various murders and missing persons! Apparently Texas Rangers get called in, and occasionally bureaucratically parachuted in by the state, by local sheriffs for assistance on complicated cases. So Mathews always has to deal with East Texas sheriffs, who are usually pretty sketchy. In the first book, two people, a black out-of-town lawyer and a white barmaid, both show up drowned within a few days, with evidence pointing towards having been beaten beforehand. Could it have to do with the sketchy bar full of Aryan Brotherhood types in town?? Well, yes, but it also has to do with the much nicer black-owned bar/restaurant/knick-knack shop down the road, land ownership, weird local feuds, etc. The second novel doesn’t even have “a body,” as various cops remind Mathews, as he goes looking for the missing child of an ABT bigwig and stumbles into a whole situation of real estate betrayals and old — sometimes antebellum! — grudges.

The plots may sound similar, and I guess they are, but that’s true of Chandler and Hammett as well, when you strip their books down. Locke really nails two key things for crime fiction: pacing and characterization/place-making (characterizing a place). The pacing is damn near perfect, especially in the second book, a highly satisfying “Empire Strikes Back” type of novel. The characterization brings in numerous suspects, victims, other cops, friends, family, lovers of Mathews, local randos, as well as evoking various East Texas locales, vividly but without a lot of tedious detail. 

A brief discussion of politics: the Aryan Brotherhood is an interesting bete noir for an interesting black detective at an interesting moment. If the name weren’t already taken by a law enforcement organization, “Texas Rangers” could easily enough be the name of a Lone Star State-based Nazi gang. The Rangers basically were a white supremacist gang for a long time, and still uphold a racist system even if they let people of color into their ranks. Locke is not naive about this, even if she doesn’t draw all of the conclusions some of the readers would. For their part, the Aryan Brotherhood, while an extremely violent, dangerous, and racist gang, has historically been a lot less political than one might expect from the name. They are primarily a business organization. Some of them bother with Nazi political organizing, but in general, there’s not a lot of money in it, so most don’t bother. There’s a funny, possibly apocryphal, Reddit thread by an altright murderer who got sent to prison and tried to ingratiate himself to the local AB types, but failed. The altright doofus wanted to talk race war; the AB guys wanted to lift weights and get high. I’ve heard spicy-socdem types try to pooh-pooh antifascism on the idea that if we went after “the really dangerous fascists” we’d go after AB. That is a stupid take for obvious reasons (some of the people I’ve seen making it might be reading this- sorry doggs, you did a bad take, still heart you). 

But these are very much novels of the “black lives matter” era, and the AB is inimical to black life to the point where killing a black man is said to be their initiation ritual. Locke squares the various political circles around her work by making Mathews, basically, a pretty simple dude. He wants to protect black life and uphold community values the best way he can. One of his beloved uncles was a Ranger- he became a Ranger (his other uncle, still alive and a character in the book, is a lawyer who owns him all the time for being a cop instead of following his example). The AB literally throws away black life with extreme violence for no reason, so after them he goes (plus he gets a badge, gun, and paycheck for so doing). Simple! It does look like Locke intends on complicating this equation- the second book takes place in the wake of the Trump election and even a borderline perspective-dullard (he’s not Harry Potter dull!) like Mathews is asking questions. I don’t expect him (or Locke) to go ACAB, but see these questions as an enjoyable savor for Locke’s finely crafted crime stories. Recommended! **** (Bluebird)/***** (Heaven)

Review – Locke, Highway 59 books