Top 5 Texas Crime Novels

This year Texas crime fiction had two distinctive elements. One was a deeper look at race relations in our state that serve as a microcosm for our country. the other was the return or the heroic Texas Ranger. Both helped create books that were socially aware, were packed with fun action, or both. Here were what I thought were the five finest.

Bluebird, Bluebird by Attica Locke

This book fuses the western with crime fiction with a black Texas Ranger trying to solve a murder involving white supremacists to look at the politics involved in race and and culture. A great entertaining genre read as well as insightful social study.

 

 

Rusty Puppy by Joe Lansdale

Lansdale’s Hap and Leonard take a case involving an African American’s murder that puts them up against a corrupt police force in a nearby town and an illegal fight game in an abandoned saw mill. One of Lansdale’s best plotted with all the fun we’ve come to expect from the man.

An Unsettling Case For Samuel Craddock by Terry Shames

Shames takes us back to Samuel Craddock’s first case as  police chief involving an arson and murder that picks at the town’s racial tensions. Shames further proves her talent at delving into the society of a small town and delivering an engaging whodunit.

 

 

Hawke’s Prey by Reavis Wortham

If Larry McMurtry wrote Die Hard. The citizens of a small south Texas town are held hostage in the local court house by a cadre of terrorists. Ranger Sonny Hawke and a rag-tag crew of citizens outside are ready to teach the bad guys a lesson in “Don’t Mess With Texas.”

Sierra Blanca by Don M. Patterson

A washed up CIA agent teams up with a ranger in the eighties to take down a soviet plot  involving a drug cartel and stolen plutonium. Full of gun fights, frayed machismo, and the right amount of self awareness, this rollicking action story keeps moving until the final period.

Tense and Tightly Coiled: MysteryPeople Q&A with Attica Locke

Attica Locke’s latest crime novel, Bluebird, Bluebirdis a timely narrative of justice, murder and taking a stand. African-American Texas Ranger Darren Matthews, suspended after helping a friend hold off white supremacists, is thinking of leaving the Rangers and joining his uncle to practice civil rights law. His marriage is on the rocks, his superiors won’t let him bring race into the equation when tracking the criminal activities of the Aryan Brotherhood, and he’s getting sick and tired of East Texas.

When Darren drives through a small Texas town and stops at a small cafe that functions as a safe haven for African-American travelers, he learns of two suspicious murders committed within a week of each other. Neither is the subject of a proper investigation, and Darren knows that without his intervention, consequences for the town’s black community loom large. As Darren looks into the murder of a prosperous black lawyer from Chicago and a local hard-living white waitress, he faces opposition from the small-town sheriff, the Aryan Brotherhood, and a cheerfully corrupt good ol’ boy. 

Bluebird, Bluebird is our Pick of the Month for September. Attica Locke was kind enough to answer some questions about the book, its context, and her crime-writing career. 

  • Interview by Director of Suspense Molly Odintz

Molly Odintz: Bluebird, Bluebird is your fourth crime novel, and you’ve spent time writing for a TV show that, while not a crime series, has some crime elements and is certainly all about power. You’ve written a straight-up mystery, a political thriller, a legal thriller, and a rural thriller – what draws you to the genre, and what subgenre do you want to tackle next?

Attica Locke: I’ve always been drawn to mystery stories, probably since I read The Westing Game as a kid. I’m drawn to intrigue and and am curious about people who lie. I’m drawn to the (heavily paraphrased here) Flannery O’Connor quote about violence: when we’re confronted with it; it reduces us to our most essential selves.

MO: Darren Matthews, as a black Texas Ranger, is torn between his community and his profession. The Texas Rangers are dedicated to fighting the Aryan Brotherhood as a drug-smuggling operation, yet refuse to address hate crimes as a reason to target the white supremacist gang. Darren is placed on administrative leave after helping an old friend protect his granddaughter from a racist attack, in a state that fully embraces the right to shoot trespassers. What did you want to explore about the constraints and ambiguities faced by minorities in law enforcement?

AL: I definitely wanted to reclaim the idea of “Stand Your Ground” from the awfulness of the Trayvon Martin or the Jordan Davis murders. There is another aspect of stand your ground which is about black (Texans, in this case) saying this is my state too (my country too), and I’m going to stand up for right to live peacefully and safely in it. I also wanted to portray a black man with a badge who wants to protect black life in Texas.

MO: Your Jay Porter novels contrast sharply with The Cutting Season, set on a plantation in Louisiana, and Bluebird, Bluebird, set in rural East Texas. What draws you to writing about the complex machinery of the city, and what inspires you about the frozen-in-time backwoods?

AL: I’m from Houston, so truth is, I’m a city girl at heart. But all of my people are from rural towns along Highway 59 in East Texas, so the rural is in my blood too. It’s fun to write both.

MO: I am so happy you returned to writing crime fiction, but I’ve also enjoyed the show Empire and your work on it. How does writing television compare to writing a novel?

AL: They could not be more different. One is done by committee, essentially – and by that, I don’t just mean the other writers on the show, but also the actors and set designer and director of photography and the editor. Through every stage of the process, the storytelling is being tweaked – either by a performance or a lighting choice, etc. It’s fun to be a part of it. It feels like playing. And I do like the social aspects of it. But it’s also lovely to be alone in your own story and following your own story compass. I’m one of those gregarious introverts. I like people. But I also really like being alone.

MO: To piggyback off that last question, Bluebird, Bluebird felt more cinematic than the previous volumes I’ve read from you, especially the shootout at the cafe. How did you bring that cinematic urgency to your latest, while exploring power politics as much as in previous volumes?

AL: I used to be a screenwriter before I was a novelist, so I’ve kind of always had the ability to write visually. It may be that a few years on Empire reminded me of the pleasures of writing visually. Or it’s just that I set out to want this book to feel tense and tightly coiled. So I tried to find urgency in lots of places.

MO: Although I found all the characters compelling, the tough cafe owner was my favorite. That cafe felt so real. What was your inspiration for the diner and its complex owner?

AL: There was a cafe called Geneva’s in Lufkin, Texas, when my mother was growing up in the 50s. Also, my great-grandmother had a cafe in Corrigan, Texas. These were both places that mainly catered to black folks during the Jim Crow years. And I guess the idea of women running their own businesses, just kind of stuck with me. Geneva’s strength, particularly the way she never gives in to a bully like Wally, comes from my grandmother.

MO: Darren’s uncles and their vastly different advice fascinated me – one uncle, a former Ranger, represents the voice of working within the system, and the ultimate image of Texas tough, while his other uncle, a career lawyer, constantly urges Darren to fight the good fight from outside the governmental system. Can you tell us a bit more about the paths Darren’s uncles represent, and Darren’s choice to drop out of law school to become a Texas Ranger?

AL: Well, they’re identical twins, so they quite literally represent a fracture in the black psyche. Do we follow the rules (i.e. put your hands in the air when the cops says to)? Or do we not bother because we’re going to get shot anyway? That’s a macabre example, but it suggests the ways in which black folks are never quite sure if it’s safe for us to follow the rules. And the two uncles represent that philosophical question. I know there are a lot of officers of color who consider protecting all life as a part of their duty. Just as I know a lot of black folks who say they will never trust a cop.

MO: Darren’s separation from his wife, and his grief over their potentially permanent parting, mirrors the grief felt by the murdered Chicago lawyer’s wife. Can you tell us a bit about your inspiration for their relationships with their spouses, and their bond with each other?

AL: No inspiration per se, just as I was writing I could see the parallels between Darren being a Ranger (literally a man on the range) and having a wife who wants him to stay put, and Randie whose marriage was the opposite. It truly just came out in the writing.

MO: You’ve so far written exclusively male protagonists for your crime novels – what draws you to the male voice?

AL: Don’t forget my sweet Caren in The Cutting Season. But, yes, it’s true, I’ve mostly written male protagonists. Jay is a sketch of my dad and even still, he’s a part of my psyche; and of course Pleasantville continues with him. With Bluebird, Bluebird, I made a choice to choose race over gender to tell this story. There are so few female Rangers that the story would have taken on a different tone, held different responsibilities. Maybe I’ve got a lot of work to do on intersectionality, but I consider myself black first and a woman second. No right or wrong to it, it’s just my truth. It was easier for me to say what I wanted about race and law enforcement without layering on the gender politics of being one of only like four female Rangers. And black. But that also sounds like a hell of a book. So maybe that’s coming.

MO: I loved your latest, but I would also love to see another Jay Porter novel; maybe even Jay Porter in LA, given your time spent there (although I read in your interview with Rachel Howzell Hall that you are wary of writing a story set in LA) Will Jay Porter ever return?

AL: I hope so. But I’m waiting for a story that demands Jay be in it. I’m waiting for him to tap me on the shoulder.

MO: The Rangers are an ambivalent force in the novel – instead of the straightforward racism expressed by Lark’s small town sheriff, the Texas Rangers refuse to acknowledge race at all, thus perpetuating racism in ways more subtle but just as persistent as any generation before. Darren must manipulate his superiors down to the local sheriff to get any law enforcement to do what he wants – did you set out to explore supposedly “colorblind” law enforcement and its limitations, or did that simply follow naturally from your initial plot idea?

AL: Anything “colorblind” is a problem. One, it’s impossible. And two, it’s offensive. People shouldn’t have to lop off parts of their identity to be accepted, or to do their jobs. But I should be clear that though I based my portrayal of the Rangers on research and talking to at least one Ranger, this is my interpretation of what it means to be a Ranger. Their desire to take down the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas on drug charges (not race) is a tactic. But I think in any law enforcement unit or in the military there is an emphasis on unity and sameness. Part of me understand the need for that. But a larger part of me feels for the black or Latino man or woman trying to navigate the culture when they clearly aren’t the same as everyone else.

You can find copies of Bluebird, Bluebird on our shelves and via bookpeople.com

MysteryPeople Pick of the Month: BLUEBIRD, BLUEBIRD by Attica Locke

  • Post by Director of Suspense Molly Odintz

9780316363297Ever since Attica Locke started writing for the hit TV show Empire, I’ve eagerly anticipated her return to crime fiction (while enjoying watching the show, of course.) Her Jay Porter novels, Black Water Rising and Pleasantville, together paint a vivid portrait of African-American life in Houston while continuing the Texas crime writing tradition of featuring lawyers moonlighting as sleuths.

At last, a new Attica Locke book is out! Between the driving plot, the complex characters, and the righteous anger, Locke’s latest, Bluebird, Bluebird, has exceeded my highest expectations. Her latest is also her first to take place in rural East Texas, and her first to be released by Mulholland Books.

When Darren, an African-American Texas Ranger, goes to help out a friend fend off a crazed white supremacist, he faces censure from his department for taking an interest in fighting hate crimes. He’s already disappointed his superiors by attempting to introduce race into the organization’s massive investigation of the Aryan Brotherhood, their tunnel-vision focus on gun-smuggling and drug-dealing a hindrance to any honest reckoning with the powerful prison gang.

After contemplating quitting the force and returning to law school, Darren thinks he’s ready to make his wife happy and retire from his dangerous occupation. When he finds out about two suspicious murders in the small town of Lark, just off of Highway 59, he knows he should move on, but he can’t leave the case alone. A black lawyer and a white waitress have been murdered in a small Texas town within a week of each other, and Darren doesn’t place much trust in local law enforcement’s interest in solving the crimes.

With the reluctant acquiescence of his bosses, under pressure from reporters to appear to be solving the crime, Darren takes on the investigation of both murders. Next thing he knows, he’s treading through muddy bayous and knee-deep in white supremacists and corrupt sheriffs as he tries to solve the two murders before the Aryan Brotherhood succeeds in their mission to assassinate him.

The discovery of the white waitress’ body behind a cafe that doubles as a community space and a safe haven for black travelers puts the entire black population of the town at risk as Aryan Brotherhood thugs try to frame the cafe patrons for the murder. Darren works to protect the cafe and its denizens, while trying to force the town’s authorities to step back from scapegoating and actually solve the crime. Meanwhile, Darren gets closer to proving that an icehouse run by white supremacist meth dealers is most likely the scene of the crime, despite the owners working hard to hinder the investigation.

Bluebird, Bluebird seems to pay tribute to the classic novel and film In the Heat of the Night. Bluebird, Bluebird‘s Northern-educated black professionals (including the murdered lawyer, his grieving photographer wife, and the intellectual Texas Ranger protagonist) all face heightened prejudice from the townspeople inspired by their skin color and their professional status, yet each manages to use that status to fulfill their goals and further the investigation. Darren, like Mr. Tibbs, is a dignified action hero who uses his wits, wiles, and professional skills to shake up a town sick of its own corruption.

As I finished the novel, my mind drew additional parallels to one of the year’s greatest genre films. Like the film Get Out, Bluebird Bluebird uses genre to tackle the horror felt by those who’ve seemingly attained success and safety, but know the difference between life and death is merely the difference between the civilized censorship of the city and the primal hatred of the pines.Believable, timely, and full of outrage – the perfect East Texas crime novel!

Bluebird, Bluebird comes out September 12th – Pre-order now! 

A (Partial) Atlas of Texas Crime Fiction

  • Post by Director of Suspense Molly Odintz

A hard land with a difficult history, Texas has always lent itself well to crime fiction. From the crime fiction greats who helped define the genre to those writers shaping the landscape of crime fiction today, Texas has a long tradition of social critiques and sendoffs of hypocrisy (the hallmarks of Texas crime fiction, in my opinion) delivered via murder mystery. Tales of Texas history may gaslight their audiences into believing in the state as a land of triumph, but we crime fiction readers know the dark, murderous truth about the land we call home….

Below, you’ll find an incomplete (of necessity) guide to Texas crime fiction, brought to y’all in honor of Texas Mystery Writers Month (that is, May). Emphasis is placed on well-known classic writers and the wide array of new crime fiction released in the past few years. We know we’re leaving out quite a few of the Texas mystery writer greats, and many of the good one-off novels. Some have gone out of print; others have simply dropped off our radar as we find new voices to champion.

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50 Mystery Novels by Women Crime Writers, Read in a Year

  • Post by Molly Odintz

The list below is the tip of the cold, murderous iceberg when it comes to works by women crime novelists, but like any other list, it’s a good place to start.

With my yearly New Year’s Resolutions, most of which I will never revisit, I usually come up some kind of reading project, based around genres, authors, or settings I’ve neglected. 2015’s goal? Best not mentioned, as I miserably failed in my efforts to complete it. 2016’s reading goal? Read fifty books by women, and if possible, fifty works of crime fiction by women; not just new releases, but also classic noir and domestic suspense. With the release of Women Crime Writers of the 1940s and 50s, we’ve entered a new era of publisher and reader support for crime fiction classics by women.

Many of the books below are part of the zeitgeist – you’ll see a lot of girls in the title. I’ve also tried to focus on reading some of their antecedents, and you’ll see works on the list from Dorothy Hughes, Daphne Du Maurier, Margaret Millar, Patricia Highsmith, and other classic women crime writers of mid-century America, plus a couple of golden age works from Dorothy Sayers and Agatha Christie. You won’t find many representatives of the tough second-wave protagonists of the 80s and 90s, or many works in translation – both areas, I’m sorry to admit, I neglected in the past year.

You will find quite a few books set in Texas, and some that have yet to be released; both quirks of a bookseller’s reading habits, as we tend to dive deep into the literature of our areas, and often receive early copies of upcoming releases.

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Political Thrillers to Take to the Polls

Post by Director of Suspense Molly Odintz

As we all gear up for Super Tuesday, and curse ourselves for missing out on early voting, here are some recommended reads for those hours you’ll spend in line, or for that post-election plane ride to Anywhere Else. Some of the following volumes inspire us to embrace our duties as citizens, while others feed on the paranoia suffusing our souls.

9780062259349Pleasantville by Attica Locke

Set during a hotly contested election in Houston, Pleasantville uses political competition as a perfect venue to explore the city’s changing neighborhoods and delve into the effect of gentrification on black voting power. A murder lands a politician’s nephew in jail who swears he’s innocent, and it’s up to civil rights lawyer Jay Porter to find out why the young man is being framed.

You can find copies of Pleasantville on our shelves and via bookpeople.com

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31 Crime Novels by Women: A New Year’s Resolution Progress Report in Honor of Women’s Equality Day

  • Post by Molly Odintz

The list below is the tip of the cold, murderous iceberg when it comes to works by women crime novelists, but like any other list, it’s a good place to start.

Minotaur Books Created This Stunning Image to Celebrate Women's Equality Day
Minotaur Books created this stunning image in celebration of Women’s Equality Day (this year, Friday, August 26th).

With my yearly New Year’s Resolutions, most of which I will never revisit, I usually come up some kind of reading project, based around genres, authors, or settings I’ve neglected. 2015’s goal? Best not mentioned, as I miserably failed in my efforts to complete it. 2016’s reading goal? Read fifty books by women, and if possible, fifty works of crime fiction by women; not just new releases, but also classic noir and domestic suspense. With the release of Women Crime Writers of the 1940s and 50s, we’ve entered a new era of publisher and reader support for crime fiction classics by women.

This year, to my surprise, I’m a bit further on the path to completing my reading goal, so time to brag and share it with you all, despite my failure to complete it as of yet. Hey, I’ve got four more months left, so why not put the cart before the horse and smugly tell you all about my accomplishments? After all, I’m 31 books in, 31 crime novels by women that I can now confidently recommend in the store and on the internet, because I have read and enjoyed them. Before I (prematurely) rest on my laurels, I’d like to trace the origins of this mighty goal.

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