Review: Bluebird Bluebird, Attica Locke; These Darkening Days, Benjamin Myers

A timely noir explores the collision of race and justice in America

Remote rural locations often lend themselves brilliantly to crime fiction, and we have two cracking examples of that phenomenon this week, with very different settings.

First up is Bluebird Bluebird by American author Attica Locke. This is Locke’s fourth novel, although she has also worked as a screenwriter, most notably on hip-hop television drama Empire. Her novels often deal with the inherent conflict between black and white America and this latest offering tackles it head on, setting the action against the backdrop of her home state of Texas.

The central character is Darren Matthews, a black Texas Ranger patrolling the backwaters that surround Highway 59 in East Texas. We first meet Matthews in court, attempting to help an elderly black man suspected of murdering a young white crackhead. To escape the heat of that case he’s sent to the tiny town of Lark where two bodies have recently washed up in the bayou. The first is a black lawyer from Chicago, the second is a local white woman.

The prose is beautifully rhythmic and languid, with a bluesy cadence to it

Matthews’ presence in the town gets folk’s backs up from the off, and he has more than his fair share of preconceptions and prejudices to deal with, his own as well as other people’s. There are deep simmering resentments from various local figures, a white supremacist husband, a suspicious widow, a dubious local sheriff and much more besides to deal with, in a plot that slowly unwinds into a melancholic horror tale of hatred and vengeance.

Like in Locke’s previous work, the prose in Bluebird Bluebird is beautifully rhythmic and languid, and this time round there’s also a bluesy cadence to it in keeping with its setting – it’s no mistake that the author quotes Lightnin’ Hopkins at the start of the book. Locke uses her insider knowledge of the area to really get under the skin of her characters, in the process
revealing the real beating heart of rural Texan life. It’s uncomfortable stuff at times, but it’s brilliantly executed.

To the north of England next with Benjamin Myers’ dense and brooding These Darkening Days. Myers is a diverse and exciting writer, always willing to take chances, and this is a follow up to his gritty crime novel Turning Blue from last year.

We’re once again in the company of washed-out journalist Roddy Mace and struggling cop James Brindle in a small Pennine town. When a woman is savagely attacked one night it should make a great story for Mace, not least because she’s an infamous amateur porn star, making her tabloid hit within hours of being assaulted.

But Mace and Brindle are forever chasing the story and the truth, and as more victims emerge, a state of paranoia spreads.

Myers’ previous work has dealt with the dark myths and folk tales of the English north and These Darkening Days is no different. The author has a real talent for drawing out the
resonances between the present and the past, for imbuing his seemingly normal plots with depth and a deep-rooted sense of place.

These Darkening Days is deeply unsettling because it never flinches, never lets the reader off the hook for a second

And, like Locke, he is a prose stylist of no small amount of skill, with a wonderful ear for the rhythm of the language in the area he writes about. These Darkening Days is deeply
unsettling because it never flinches, never lets the reader off the hook for a second. Cracking stuff.

Bluebird Bluebird, Attica Locke (Serpent’s Tail, £14.99)

These Darkening Days, Benjamin Myers (Moths, £7.99)