Attica Locke

Serpent’s Tail, £7.99

Taken purely as a diverting crime novel, Bluebird, Bluebird makes a compelling page-turner. It features a strong protagonist, who is flawed and conflicted in interesting ways, and takes place in a small community whose secrets are just waiting to be peeled away layer by layer.

But it goes one better than that. Attica Locke opens her story out by using the basic plot of a double murder in rural Texas to explore the racial codes of the state in which she grew up.

With equal weight given to the crime and its social context, both aspects of the story have space to breathe and interact organically with each other.

Black Texas Ranger Darren Matthews is on suspension for being rather too close to the suspect in a murder case when he hears about two bodies being found in the small town of Lark: a black man and, a couple of days later, a white woman.

This is a reversal of the usual order, in which the discovery of a dead white woman is usually followed up by a black man killed in reprisal.

Matthews, who has always been drawn to cases with a racial dimension, often to the exasperation of his white colleagues, decides to use his time off by going to Lark and doing a little incognito poking-around.

Already burdened by worries about his career, his marriage and his inability to leave strong drink alone, Matthews has to fight his corner every step of the way, getting into conflicts with the local sheriff, who strongly objects to the idea that a local group of white supremacists is involved, and securing precious little support from his own Texas Rangers.

His desire to fight injustice falls somewhat flat among the people he wants to help too, after a poor first impression. And what little goodwill Matthews does garner won’t last forever.

There’s something going on in Lark he isn’t getting, and until he catches up people like Randie, the dead man’s widow, and Geneva Sweet, the owner of a roadside

truck-stop that’s one of the social centres of Lark, will continue to suffer.

A Texan herself, Locke knows these kinds of towns and the codes they live by.

The East Texas of Bluebird, Bluebird is well-observed, insightful and written with genuine affection.

As much as she can see its faults, it’s still an inextricable part of her.

That ambivalence is reflected by Darren Matthews, who understands the unwritten rules and knows there is something rotten in the state of Texas, but identifies with the place so strongly that he bristles when it’s criticised by outsiders.

Steeped in the blues (Sweet’s husband was a blues guitarist who quit the road to be with her), the novel is both a celebration of Locke’s home state and a condemnation of the racism underpinning its culture.

It also turns out to have been sowing seeds for a sequel right from the start. Bluebird, Bluebird is a novel composed of tricky balancing acts, all of which Locke makes appear effortless.