Bluebird, Bluebird by Attica Locke (Narrated by J.D. Jackson)

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Publisher: Hachette Audio | Release Date: September 13, 2017 | Runtime: 9 hours and 25 minutes

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Bluebird, Bluebird, the first entry in Attica Locke’s Highway 59 mystery series involving Darren Matthews, a black Texas Ranger, was the 2018 winner of the Edgar Award’s Best Novel category. Given the emotional complexity, rich characters, omnipresent atmosphere, and tension that simmers and underscores small town life in Lark, it’s easy to see why.

Matthews, recently suspended following his involvement in an off-duty incident between a family friend and the murder of a Aryan Brotherhood gang member, is drawn to Lark by the murder of a black lawyer from Chicago and, days later, a white woman, both of whom were dragged out of the same bayou where they’d drowned. Matthews can’t help but draw a connection between the two, regardless of how much local white Sheriff Van Horn tries to ignore this common link, and finds himself in the center of Lark’s complex racial tensions and familial history.

Locke does an excellent job portraying the racial divisions that exist in this small Texas town, as well as within the various police units and that cloud inter-agency cooperation. Matthews had almost escaped this aspect of Texan life but left law school after news reports of an black man being dragged to death in Jasper. It was a high-profile murder that acted as Matthews’ own personal 9/11 and compelled him to return home and follow in his uncle’s footsteps as a Texas Ranger. His attempts to open a race crimes unit shortly thereafter, though, were stifled, but he leapt at the chance to join the task force investigating the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas, a decision that has put a bounty on his head by the ABT.

Bluebird, Bluebird does an excellent job exploring the complexities of racism, but it’s also a pretty compelling mystery in its own right. I will say, though, that while I was not particularly surprised by the outcome of the investigation, Locke does build a tight case that leads to both a logical and emotional resolution that I found pretty satisfying. It’s a deeply layered mystery, built off the relationships, connections, misunderstandings, and distrust that exist between the book’s large cast of secondary characters, and is all the richer for it. There’s a lot of literary panache at play here, and I dug Matthews’ role as an unwanted outsider (for multiple reasons) working to make things right.

On the narrating end of things, J.D. Jackson does a damn good job with the material. A classically trained actor and recipient of AudioFile magazine’s Best Voices of the Year for 2012 and 2013, Jackson reads Locke’s words with honeyed precision, hitting those emotional beats with aplomb and a whole lot of finesse. He’s an awesome narrator, and although this the first I’ve heard of his work, I’ll certainly be on the lookout for more. As far as I’m now concerned, he is Darren Matthews and the official voice of Highway 59. I’m more than eager to hear him read more in this series as it continues, and I’ll be seeking out his other narrations in the future.

Darren Matthews is a welcome addition to the literary canon of professional gumshoes, and Locke’s explorations of race, justice, and honor are as timely as they are necessary, particularly now amidst the escalating tensions of post-2016 America. He’s an important character, and her’s an important voice, and this is a series that I’m looking forward to continuing and seeing how it develops and grows from here.