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)