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Attica Locke on Her Favourite Southern Noir Novels

Posted on 27th May 2020 by Mark Skinner

Few contemporary writers paint such an evocative picture of the Deep South as Attica Locke. A crime novelist of the most literary kind, her series of books featuring Ranger Darren Matthews have been justly lauded by both the press and her peers. Her latest, Heaven, My Home, is the Waterstones Thriller of the Month for June. In this exclusive piece, she sheds light on her favourite examples of the Southern Noir genre.     

Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin

Its title taken from a childhood chant about the spelling of Mississippi, a state whose history is often as crooked as the innocent chant, Tom Franklin’s novel is everything southern noir should be: full of lyrical prose, hard-earned wisdom, and a snake’s nest of secrets. Buried in the personal histories of both Larry Ott and Silas Jones is the unsolved mystery of a missing girl, a crime that tore through both of their lives in different ways—defined by race and class, as so many things in Mississippi are—and decades later brings them together in an unexpected way.

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A sizzling slice of Southern Gothic that mixes simmering racial tension with a historic unsolved murder and a whole heap of dark secrets, Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter is drenched in small-town atmospherics. A deserved winner of the CWA Golden Dagger, Franklin’s Mississippi-set psychological thriller grips from first page to last.
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Darktown by Thomas Mullen

Thomas Mullen has turned a piece of Atlanta history into a masterful, page-turning mystery about the first black police officers in the city, officers who are technically cuffed by their own department, which doesn’t give them the same power of the badge as their white counterparts. It forces the two black cops to use unorthodox methods to solve the death of a mysterious woman, making them more like noir private eyes than cops—an incredibly interesting twist on the classic procedural.

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As much a fascinating piece of social history as it is a gripping crime novel, Mullen’s blistering book explores Atlanta’s first black police force and a murder that lit the touch-paper of racial tension in 1948. Evocative, intelligent and crusading, Darktown is a masterly, and highly unconventional, police procedural.
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The Fighter by Michael Farris Smith

Michael Farris Smith is one of the most powerful southern voices in American literature. Here, Smith paints the Mississippi Delta as the complex place that it is—a place of darkness and danger, but also grace. Jack Boucher is punch-drunk fighter whose life is on the line in more ways than one. Filled with rich, utterly unforgettable characters, you will follow his redemption story while perched on the edge of your seat.

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An intensely powerful depiction of desolation and emotional salvation that borders on the mythic, The Fighter churns with raw passion and febrile tension. Steeped in the heat and dust of the Mississippi Delta, Farris Smith’s devastating account of a broken bare-knuckle boxer forced to step in the ring one last time is a stunningly realised read.
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King Zeno by Nathaniel Rich

New Orleans in 1918, this novel’s setting, bears only a passing resemblance to the city we know now. But the seeds are there. Music—the birthplace of jazz. Corruption—city contracts falling into the wrong hands during construction of a canal through the city’s Ninth Ward. And violence—a serial axe murderer terrorizing a city. All while New Orleans is trying to cement itself as a cultural and economic jewel in the new century.

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Taking the real-life New Orleans axe murders as a jumping off point, Rich’s searing narrative paints a vivid picture of a vibrant, decadent city awash in jazz and corruption. Tracing the repercussions of the killing spree on three very different individuals, King Zeno is a dark, atmospheric slice of Southern Gothic that lingers in the mind long after the final page.
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The Maid’s Version by Daniel Woodrell

The only word I have for this book: perfection. There is not a single word wasted, not a single superfluous thought or kernel of wisdom in this taut tale of a mysterious fire in the Missouri Ozarks. Anna Dunahew, a lowly maid, suspects she knows the answers to what happened at a dance hall on the night of the fire, but it may take decades for her to find a way to be heard. The language in this novel is exquisitely beautiful and profound.

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The author of Winter’s Bone serves up another immersive and absorbing examination of human morality in the Missouri Ozarks, centring on a shocking crime and the black maid who is convinced she can solve it – if anybody will listen to her. Southern noir at it’s finest, The Maid’s Version simmers with tension, suspense and raw power.
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