Heaven, My Home by Attica Locke

Review by Gill Davies, 10 October 2019

This powerful and engrossing novel continues a series of crime novels in which Attica Locke uses plot and suspense to investigate inequality and American racism in the late 20th and 21st centuries. Previous novels examined the lives and history of black Americans as they struggled to establish communities where safety and mutual respect were possible. In Black Water Rising, set in the Reagan years, she showed a community growing in confidence after the slow but significant victories of the civil rights movement. However, Bluebird, Bluebird was written as Trump’s campaign was beginning to have an impact in racist attacks, incendiary language and the degradation of everyday civility. And her latest book is a fuller response to what has since been unleashed. Heaven, My Home continues the themes, the Texas setting and some of the characters from her previous novel. It is set in 2016, and the main character wonders “with befuddled anger at what a handful of scared white people could do to a nation.” That “ in an act of blind fury, white voters had just lit a match to the very country they claimed to love – simply because they were being asked to share it….”

This despairing character is Darren Mathews, an elite Texas Ranger, himself African-American, who is working with a special unit investigating far-right activists in the racist Aryan Brotherhood of Texas. His work takes him to Jefferson, a decayed city desperately promoting itself through fantasies of the charm and history of the old south (including a colonial hotel with a ghost and a replica steamboat). Mathews’s role involves taking advantage of another criminal investigation into the disappearance of Levi King, the 9-year-old son of Bill King, an ABT chief who is currently in prison for armed robbery and drug dealing. He hopes to get further information about the ABT from Bill King by helping to find the missing boy. The search takes him to Hopetown, an obscure settlement by Lake Caddo, a huge and often impenetrable stretch of swamp, cypress forest, inlets, creeks and open water. It is a powerful and haunting setting with touches of southern Gothic about it and expressive in the novel of the darkness of human motivation. But the lake also speaks of a history that long predates the  contemporary horror of Trump’s USA: out on the lake, Mathews feels a “raw beauty, floating through a forest of trees older than time itself” present before “any of them had been born, before America was even an idea, before Mexico and Spain had a piece of it, before the French tried it too, before Texas was more than a word of kindness on a Caddo’s lips. Tayshas.”

Hopetown is a small settlement created a hundred years before by escaped slaves who hid on the edge of Lake Caddo, protected by the resident group of surviving Native Americans (Caddos). They settled and farmed the land with love and in harmony with their neighbours. However, due to a misplaced sense of trust on the part of the now elderly inhabitants, the land has been squatted by white trash. (I can’t describe them in any other way. They are the disgruntled, entitled and often vicious tribe who have welcomed the new President and celebrate their legitimised sense of superiority.) Several are members of, or loyal to, the ABT and they provoke and despise their black neighbours. They are openly hostile to Darren Mathews and obstruct the police despite growing fears that the boy has been kidnapped or even murdered. The crime seems to centre on Hopetown but its effects and its solution take us back to the prosperous heart of Jefferson. It is not only the dispossessed who have vicious motives and and ugly views. There is a chilling portrait of Bill King’s mother, a wealthy white woman of the “Old South” who blatantly justifies her racism and her privilege and is more dangerous because more powerful than the white underclass. There are dubious financial dealings mixed up with the other criminal- and revenge-related plots. Indeed, the solution to this mystery will ultimately tie together all the different strands of the plot, exposing the dark motives of both rich and poor whites.

Locke’s hero, developing from the earlier novel, is flawed but very sympathetic. True to hard-boiled conventions, Mathews’s relationship with his superiors is fraught and sometimes hostile; his best friend may be about to betray him; his marriage is shaky; and his drinking problems resurface. His situation is complicated because in the earlier novel Bluebird, Bluebird, Mathews concealed the murder of a criminal ARB member by an elderly black man and family friend. He hid the gun used in the crime and it is being used by his mother – with whom he has a very difficult relationship – to blackmail him into doing whatever she wants. He is also being pursued by a hostile District Attorney who suspects collusion and a cover-up, and won’t let the case rest. Locke is also sensitive to the potential limitations on Mathews’s role as a law-enforcer that come from his lifetime experience of racism. He makes some bad decisions and is in no sense triumphant at the end. The result is a politically and morally complex situation, emerging from a gripping story, with compelling human predicaments. This is as good as crime fiction gets.

Attica Locke, Heaven, My Home (Serpent’s Tail, 2019). ISBN: 978-1781257692, 304 pp., hardback.

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