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Bluebird, Bluebird

This is Danny Caine, owner of the Raven Book Store in Lawrence, Kansas, with another HPPR Book Byte.

Last year, The Raven was fortunate enough to receive a pretty high honor in the mystery world—the Raven Award from the Mystery Writers of America.

It’s awarded annually to recognize outstanding achievement in the mystery field outside the realm of creative writing. The award is presented at the Edgars Banquet, MWA’s ritzy celebration of all things Mystery. It had the works—gowns, tuxes, a big hotel ballroom in Midtown New York City.

I was a bit out of my element, more used to my Kansas boots and jeans. Still, it was thrilling to be in that crowd eating bacon wrapped dates on toothpicks. I was delighted to meet some of my favorite authors, especially Attica Locke, author of the amazing Bluebird Bluebird. Even better, Bluebird Bluebird took home the award for best novel at the end of the night.

Bluebird, Bluebird is the masterful story of murder, racism, and history in a small East Texas town called Lark. There are basically two businesses in Lark, Geneva Sweet’s Café and a bar that’s a hangout for white supremacists. There’s also a bayou, and the bayou has recently produced two dead bodies.

Suspended Texas Ranger Darren Matthews swoops in and tries to unpack what happened, but the quiet town soon turns hostile. That’s on top of his own troubles, in love and in law, plus that pesky suspension.

It’s a classic, dangerous mystery—there were times I was certain there was NO WAY Darren could figure it out, let alone get out of Lark alive. Locke’s mystery is a great read, and it pulses with politics that feel current and relevant. She’s a necessary voice.

In my speech at the ceremony, I asked the mystery community to embrace the diversity in perspectives that has recently animated other genres, like poetry or Young Adult. In some ways, the mystery genre is slow to adapt to the politics of today. In many mystery novels, action is set off upon the discovery of gorgeous women brutally murdered. Many feminist readers are tiring of this trope.  Further, in mystery-land, cops and the FBI are often unquestionably the Good Guys. They may be flawed or have difficult home lives, but justice is on their side and the reader is asked to root for them. In a climate where police brutality has sparked a national conversation on the role of policing, some readers may challenge this unquestioned loyalty to law enforcement. The Edgars themselves this year found themselves forced to reckon with these issues, and Attica Locke was at the center of the storm.

Another special award the MWA gives out is the Grand Master award. In November 2018, the MWA announced that one of the Grand Master recipients this year would be Linda Fairstein. In her pre-author life, Fairstein was a prosecutor in the Manhattan District Attorney’s Sex Crimes Unit. In that role, Fairstein was involved in the trial of the Central Park 5, a group of black and Latino boys wrongfully convicted of raping a white woman.

The conviction and subsequent wrongful imprisonment was based on a false confession that Fairstein may have worked to attain. When she heard Fairstein was to be named a grandmaster, Attica Locke was furious. She tweeted to the Edgars, saying “As a member and 2018 Edgar winner, I am begging you to reconsider having Linda Fairstein serve as a Grand Master in next year’s awards ceremony. She is almost singlehandedly responsible for the wrongful incarceration of the Central Park Five.”

Locke’s plea and the attendant publicity caused the MWA to withdraw Fairstein’s award. A difficult decision, and surely an awkward moment for the MWA. It continues to cause controversy, and luminaries like Otto Penzler and Nelson DeMille have written furious open letters condemning MWA’s decision. But personally, I am encouraged that we have authors like Attica Locke forcing these discussions in the mystery world—Locke’s exciting writing and her political activism are a needed voice in a genre that can be slow to evolve