by MARILYN STASIO, SEPT. 29, 2017, first appearing on NYT > Books
To the East Texas natives in Attica Locke’s BLUEBIRD, BLUEBIRD, Highway 59 is the lifeline that both links their towns and provides an escape route from them. Darren Mathews, a righteous Texas Ranger who comes from a deep-rooted family of black professional men, “men of stature and purpose,” knows every truck-stop hamlet from Laredo to Texarkana. But he is currently on suspension, and “without the badge, he was just a black man traveling the highway alone.”
Lawful or otherwise, Darren’s help is needed up in Lark, where the bodies of a white woman and a black man were fished out of the muddy waters of the Attoyac Bayou. The town turns out to be a piñata of quirky characters, like the local sheriff, who lives in a replica of Monticello. (His dog lives in a replica of the White House.) Just about everyone in Lark patronizes Geneva Sweet’s Sweets, a cafe that displays treasured objets like “Texas license plates going back 50 years.”
Locke writes in a blues-infused idiom that lends a strain of melancholy and a sense of loss to her lyrical style. Given the characters in her novel, that voice comes naturally. Geneva’s deceased husband, Joe “Petey Pie” Sweet, was a session man and “a devil on the guitar” who played with great bluesmen like Muddy Waters and Bobby “Blue” Bland. And every juice house and icehouse, as bars are known around here, loads up the jukebox with country blues. But there’s also music in the private thoughts of a man like Darren. “He knew what it felt like to stand on the back porch of his family homestead … and feel the breath of his ancestors in the trees.”
As for the murder mystery, it’s tied up with buried feelings and secret betrayals that cross racial lines and go back generations. “There were things you just didn’t do in Lark, Texas,” Locke tells us. “And picking apart bloodlines was one of them.” So enjoy your stay in Lark; but don’t ask anyone “Who’s your daddy?” and expect to get out of town alive.
The great port of London is churning with activity in Anne Perry’s latest Victorian mystery, AN ECHO OF MURDER. On the lookout for trouble, Commander William Monk of the Thames River Police keeps his eyes peeled on the mighty ships passing through. But he isn’t prepared for the gruesome scene of murder that greets him in a dockside warehouse. The horridly mutilated victim is a Hungarian merchant, one of a growing populace of displaced persons fleeing oppression in European cities like Budapest and Vienna, only to stir up antagonism in their new home. “They’re different, that’s all,” says a newspaper dealer who bristles at all the “foreign newspapers.”
Perry fashions a rich, if blood-splattered narrative from this chapter of history. As the murders continue, Monk and his clever wife, Hester, a nurse who saw plenty of savagery in the Crimea, struggle to fathom the new climate of hatred. “I think it’s fear,” Hester says. “It’s fear of ideas, things that aren’t the way you’re used to. Everyone you don’t understand because their language is different, their food, but above all their religion.” How times haven’t changed.
Part police procedural and part travelogue, Cay Rademacher’s MURDEROUS MISTRAL is a perfect getaway mystery. This tightly-plotted whodunit (briskly translated from the German by Peter Millar) uproots Capitaine Roger Blanc from his prestigious office in the Paris gendarmerie to the Midi, “the graveyard of any career,” where he has inherited a run-down 18th-century stone house. Blanc soon finds out that “Parisian ruthlessness didn’t quite work down here.” Nor does Parisian pride, which gets clobbered when he starts interviewing slippery local suspects in the murder of an inept gangster.
The detective-as-outsider convention works really well in humanizing Blanc, whom the elegant women in the district find especially amusing. The backbreaking restoration work earns him sympathy, as does his first exposure to the slashing winds of the region’s infamous mistral. By the time Blanc is presented with his second murder case, he’s ready to admit that his new home in the countryside is more stimulating than he’d thought.
Julia Keller doesn’t pull any punches in FAST FALLS THE NIGHT. In the course of a single day, there are 33 overdoses (three of them fatal) in Aker’s Gap, the Appalachian town in West Virginia where she sets all her regional mysteries. The putative cause of this horrendous business is a batch of tainted heroin — heroin being “as common as stray cats around here.” But Bell Elkins, a county prosecutor and the protagonist in this series, knows that the problem goes deeper, to a “circular logic of despair” created by shuttered coal mines, exacerbated by zero replacement job options, and resulting in the kind of hopelessness from which there’s no recovery. The plot pretty much consists of waiting for the next OD victim to keel over, but Keller does a terrific job of rubbing our faces in the troubles of her hometown — of America’s hometowns.