Lark, Tex., population 178, is a pretty lousy place to live. It's a worse place to die.
Michael Wright, a black lawyer from Chicago passing through town in a BMW? You know he's toast. Beaten to death in nearby Attoyac Bayou. Car gone.
Also dead is Missy Dale, an unhappily married white waitress in town. She left her redneck bar — Jeff's Juice House — late one night with Wright. You know it didn't work out so hot for her, either. Dead in the same bayou, washing up a few days later. Her dumb-as-a-rock hubby, Keith, is a felon who aspires to membership in the Aryan Brotherhood.
Driving into town to suss out who did what to whom is Texas Ranger Darren Mathews. He's the nephew of the state's first black Texas ranger. Darren drives a truck, wears boots and a Stetson. His marriage is on the rocks, just like the whiskey he knocks back. Like any good protagonist in a crime thriller, he's on suspension when he rolls into town.
Keith is his first suspect, naturally. After all, the requirement for getting into the Texas branch of the Aryans is to kill a black guy. Darren and Keith aren't going to play nice.
This brutally simple scenario is the setting for "Bluebird, Bluebird," by Attica Locke, a former writer and a producer of the Fox drama series "Empire." Locke's three previous books, "Black Water Rising," "The Cutting Season" and "Pleasantville," are set in Houston or Louisiana, and each turns on the region's racial bigotry. "Bluebird," which takes its name from a John Lee Hooker song, is set in East Texas. It's a fitting spot.
Lark rests on U.S. Highway 59, which Locke describes as "a line that runs through the heart of East Texas, a thread on the map that ties together small towns like knots on a string, from Laredo to Texarkana, on the northern border. For black folks born and bred in rural communities along the highway's north-south route, Highway 59 has always represented an arc of possibility, hope paved and pointing north."
East Texas is more Southern than Lone Star, and its racism seems as if it's from another era. Like many other little Southern towns lost on highways going somewhere else, Lark feels stuck in a sepia-toned time warp.
The hub of black activity on one side of the highway is Geneva Sweet's establishment, a "low-slung, flat-roofed cafe painted red and white, cinched curtains in the front winds, and a sign out front with a lit-up arrow pointing to the front door." There's a barbershop (of sorts) in the rear of the cafe, whiskey under the counter and a room or two to rent out back.
Across the highway sits the red-brick plantation-style home of Wallace Jefferson III, the old white guy who owns and runs everything.
In between is Darren, whose family pride compels him to take race-based cases, even though he knows he could have an easier life — and a happier marriage — if he didn't. "The belief that they were special, that they had the stones to endure what others couldn't, was the most quintessentially Texas thing about them," Locke writes of Darren's family. "It was an arrogance born of genuine fortitude and a streak of hardheadedness six generations deep, a Homeric shield against the petty jealousies and lethal injustices that so occupied white folks' free time, their oppressive and intrusive gaze into every aspect of black life — from what you eat to who you married to the clothes you wear to the music you play to the way you wear your hair to how you address them on the street."
Geneva, and her family, become one hub of the twin murder investigations, for reasons deeper than first apparent. Keith, racist enough to call a Texas Ranger a racial slur to his face, is a violent wild card. And then the dead man's estranged widow comes to town and draws Darren's attention in more ways than one.
Locke is a brisk writer with a sharp eye for the subtleties of how rural white Southerners tend to act as if their little towns belong to them — and react harshly to black independence. Still, those truths are not necessarily the evidence one finds in a murder investigation in a small town in Texas. Those places are complicated.
Neely Tucker's most recent novel is "Only the Hunted Run."
By Attica Locke
Mulholland. 320 pp. $26