As Heaven, My Home, Attica Locke’s fourth novel opens, Texas Ranger Darren Mathews has been dispatched to a tiny town near the Louisiana border to investigate the disappearance three days earlier of a little boy near a swampy lake. Although an eyewitness claims to have seen the boy stow his small boat, he never arrived home; no body has been found. Oddly, Mathews is resistant to being coerced into investigating this case that presents a couple of complications:
“Levi King deserved the benefit of the doubt, didn’t he? Did Darren really want to live in a world where a nine-year-old wasn’t worth his hope?”
The first complication is that the boy’s father, Bill “Big Kill” King has been spending the last six years in a Texas prison for various drug related crimes. Big Kill is also a big-shot in the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas, or the ABT. Another complication is that FBI seems eager to exploit the boy’s disappearance as leverage in its continuing case against King.
The last bit of complexity is that Darren Mathews is a black man. Entering the den of rural Texas white nationalists is a huge complication.
Heaven, My Home, Attica Locke’s fourth novel (and second in her new crime series), is set in the two-month interregnum between the end of the Obama presidency and the beginning of Trump’s ascension to the White House: December 2016. Darren’s supervisor wants to close their case on Bill King before the inauguration because he worries about potential interference from Washington in January.
Mathews is grappling with his own personal and professional ethical demons. A government informant named Ronnie Malvo was shot a few months ago, and a Mathews’ family friend named Rutherford “Mack” McMillan was arrested but released after a grand jury refused to indict him. Darren withheld information about a gun that incriminates Mack. The gun is currently in the possession of his evil, crazy mother who is blackmailing him for rent money.
Although Darren recognises a blatant opportunity to frame Bill King for the hit on Malvo, he is struggling with the ethics of that choice:
“Darren felt a wave of nausea over how easy this was, how far he’d wandered from how he was raised. He thought of his uncles, both of whom were men of truth. . . . Could there ever be honor in lying, even when it might save an elderly black man from prison, even if Ronnie Malvo deserved no more than knockoff justice, a cheap facsimile? Could anything really justify what he was doing?”
Darren is also finally back in a good place with his wife. Although he prefers working on the road, he’s agreed to sacrifice for this desk job, and this decision has provided some ballast for their relationship:
“Their home life had stabilised. . . by the simple pleasure of good sex, by its power to pluck out the best memories of a marriage for display and make you forget the ugly ones, the damaged plums hiding at the bottom of the bin. . . . He’d forgotten how safe he felt with Lisa.”
They’ve been seeing a counselor and he is paying lip service to the wagon: a few beers, no Jim Beam. And he’s more often remembering to forget about the widow Randie.
One key cog in the novel’s plot is Rosemary King: family matriarch, mother of Bill King, grandmother of Levi, the queen racist, an entitled monster who hides behind her money and the cover it provides for her support of local racist sheriffs and shady real estate dealings. Mathews receives a warning from her black driver: “Rosemary don’t play.”
The novel’s plot contains much standard criminal fare: complicated family connections, crooked cops, drugs, greed, backstabbing. Its most compelling aspects are how Locke concretely sets it in Trumpian America and directly places her black male protagonist in this cauldron of racism, white nationalists, and white privilege. The racial tension is palpable every time Mathew is a called the n-word or is surrounded by rifle-toting ABT members. Mathews gets repeated opportunities to witness first-hand his observation from early in the novel:
“white voters had just lit a match to the very country they claimed to love—simply because they were being asked to share it.”
Any Cop?: This is an amazingly compelling and tense novel. I look forward to reading Ms. Locke’s first novel in this series as well as subsequent additions.