I chose to read this book because I have read Attica Locke’s previous novels and really enjoyed them. And then I learned that this one received the 2018 Edgar Award for best novel.
Darren Mathews is a black Texas Ranger who ends up becoming involved in twin murder investigations in East Texas. The body of Michael Wright, a black lawyer from Chicago, is found in the bayou behind a café owned by Geneva Sweet, a 69-year-old black woman. Three days later, the body of Missy Dale, a white waitress in a nearby redneck bar, is found in the same bayou. Darren thinks the deaths are connected, though “the order of the killings: black man dies, then the white girl” doesn’t fit the “agreed-upon American script” in which a black man commits an act of violence against a white woman and is then punished by the white community.
Darren has to deal with personal issues and obstacles in his investigation. Because he has refused to stop being a Texas Ranger, his marriage is in difficulty. This and a recent suspension have led to a serous drinking problem. The murders occur in a tiny rural town, and the townsfolk and local law enforcement close ranks against an outsider. Then there’s Wallace Jefferson III, a local white businessman and landowner who seems to have undue influence and whose bar seems to be a gathering place for a chapter of the Aryan Brotherhood.
Darren emerges as a credible and complex protagonist. It is not his personal demons that are most interesting; instead, it is his loyalty to Texas that stands out. “He was Texas-bred on both sides, going all the way back to slavery” and “What they were not going to be was run off.” Ironically, “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. It was an arrogance born of genuine fortitude and a streak of hardheadedness six generations deep.” Darren had been taught that “You could run, wouldn’t nobody judge you if you did. But you could also stay and fight. . . . ‘The nobility is in the fight, son, in all things.’” He sees his job as a way of fighting for the right of blacks to claim a home in Texas: “’The badge was to say this land is my land, too, my state, my country, and I’m not gon’ be run off. I can stand my ground, too. My people built this, and we’re not going anywhere.’”
The one character who is not credible is Randie, the widow of Michael Wright. She arrives to claim her estranged husband’s body and wants to know what happened. She is a career woman, “a fashion photographer, rather sought after around the world” yet she behaves in an unconvincing way. For instance, she walks into a redneck bar alone and doesn’t understand the hostility she encounters? As a black, she has never experienced prejudice?! She is an independent woman who has travelled the world but she is reduced to a screaming, trembling hysteric?
There is considerable commentary on the issue of race and justice. Though one of Darren’s uncles believed that “the law would save [blacks] by protecting us – by prosecuting crimes against us as zealously as it prosecutes crimes against whites,” another uncle stated “the law is a lie black folks need protection from – a set of rules that were written against us from the time ink was first set to parchment.” “For black folks, injustice came from both sides of the law, a double-edged sword of heartache and pain” because “for every story about a black mother, sister, or wife crying over a man who was locked up for something he didn’t do, there was a black mother, sister, wife, husband, father, or brother crying over the murder of a loved one for which no one was locked up.” And then there’s this telling statement about the current state of affairs: “[Darren’s] uncles adhered to those ancient rules of southern living, for they understood how easily a colored man’s general comportment could turn into a matter of life and death. Darren had always wanted to believe that theirs was the last generation to have to live that way, that change might trickle down from the White House. When in fact the opposite had proved to be true. In the wake of Obama, America had told on itself.”
The ending of the book suggests that there could be a sequel or that this is the first of a series featuring Darren Mathews. I will definitely be looking out for any follow-up or any future books by this author because she provides the reader with a great story and food for thought as well.