Attica Locke has lived in Los Angeles for twenty-two years now, spending much of that time as a screenwriter for movies and television. But when it comes to writing fiction, her imagination still dwells in the South, where she grew up. In the small East Texas town where Locke set her propulsive fourth novel, Bluebird, Bluebird, an unofficial system of casual segregation persists. White folks patronize a bar called the Icehouse, while African-American residents congregate at Geneva’s, a ramshackle café. That static, uneasy coexistence is strained by the discovery of two murders — of a black lawyer from Chicago and a local white woman.
Mysteries often revolve around the search for justice, but the stories Locke tells are more frequently propelled by the call of social justice. She says the first time she read To Kill a Mockingbird, she strongly identified with Scout. Like Harper Lee’s young heroine, Locke is the daughter of a southern lawyer focused on civil rights, but she also went one better than Scout and married a public defender.
“What is special to me about law is that it is the place where we decide as a society what we will allow and what we won’t allow,” says Locke, sitting in a Pasadena café. “It’s why we have to define some things as a hate crime, to be able to say: this is such an abomination it deserves a special category.”
Darren Matthews, the African-American Texas Ranger who investigates the murders in Bluebird, Bluebird, is a specialist in crimes with a racial component. After graduating from an elite college up north, Matthews considered becoming a lawyer but instead returned home to become a law enforcer. Now he finds himself wrangling with a local white supremacist group called the Aryan Brotherhood, unraveling a double murder mystery, and vacillating between his belief in the law as a fallible but honorably intentioned mechanism for uncovering the truth and a mounting suspicion that America’s entire judicial system is “a lie black folks need protection from.”
Locke herself is torn by this struggle between trust and cynicism. “I think every black person’s relationship to justice is complicated,” she suggests. But Locke comes from a lineage of landowning Texans who rejected the Great Migration to the North and chose to stand their ground in the South. Looking at a family tree recently, she says, “I saw members of my family who became professors and state senators and who started schools where there weren’t schools. There really was a sense of civic engagement, a feeling that this place is ours as much as anybody else’s.” Locke wanted to knit that sense of black rootedness into the novel; Darren Matthews, she writes, can “feel the breath of his ancestors in the trees.”
Bluebird was finished before the 2016 presidential election, but the book’s crackling racial tension feels horribly well timed. The Texas Rangers leadership in the book refuses to acknowledge race has any bearing on investigations, making it near impossible for Matthews to do his job. Locke believes that this unwillingness to confront the unresolved legacies of white domination “infantilizes us and stops us from discussing important issues because we have no language or permission to talk deeply about it.” The strange intimacy of black and white in the South — “this familial thing that is odd and hard to capture” — is precisely what fascinates her.
Tucked inside the suspenseful twists of a mystery novel is a portrait of a place where white men’s lives “revolved around the black folks they claimed to hate but couldn’t leave alone.” Locke explains, “If you think of the idea that black women metaphorically nursed this nation into being, if you think that black labor brought this country into being, it’s like how you feel about your parents — no matter how much you hate them, you kind of know you owe every damn thing to them. It is my belief that there are some white folks who . . . cannot tolerate that level of power, and so it gets twisted around into a sick hatred. Underneath that is a love that can’t be understood or named.”
Although she’d been writing fiction since she was a kid, scribbling tales on the back of her father’s legal stationery, Locke didn’t think about writing a novel until 2004, when she grew disillusioned with her life as a Hollywood screenwriter. “Nothing ever got made, but I was very well paid,” she shrugs. “But I wasn’t really being myself.” So Locke and her husband took out a second mortgage on their house while she wrote her debut novel, Black Water Rising, which earned glowing endorsements from legends James Ellroy and George Pelecanos and a nomination for an Edgar, the mystery genre’s equivalent to the Oscar. Black Water Rising wove the history of American race relations into the tale of a lawyer and former civil rights activist ensnared in a murder case.
“I was really trying to write a simple, slick thriller,” Locke says with a throaty laugh. Instead she found herself sobbing on the floor of a Palm Springs hotel room as she realized how vulnerable the story’s themes of racial conflict made her feel. “I was about to color myself to the world. Which seems dumb, because I’m clearly black — but I was about to say to the world, I am not incidentally black. This is my worldview and it is tense in here. I am afraid in here.”
A stint writing for Fox’s hit show Empire has given her the courage to try to translate this painful vision of racial discord and power imbalance into television. While she writes a sequel to Bluebird, she is also percolating a pitch for a TV show based on the book series. Even talking about the project scares her.
“I am terrified that I will lay out these issues that feel life-and-death to me and it will be met with indifference by the industry, by executives,” Locke says, voice wavering. “This is a show about the existential crisis in a black man’s soul. If I get into a room with people going ‘Nyaah,’ it will break my heart.”
After a pause, Locke adds, “The good news about me is that I will be terrified and do it anyway.”