“Heaven, My Home” by Attica Locke

Heaven My HomeNow that we’re almost three years into the Trump presidency, most of the new books, films, music and TV shows reaching the market were conceived and created during this particular era in American history. Not all of it deals directly with current events; a Los Angeles Times piece called the 1980s-set evil-clown film “It” “a thinly veiled parable of life in Donald Trump’s America,” while even romance writers have changed their approach to alpha-male heroes as a result of the man in the White House.

Mystery novelist Attica Locke’s Bluebird, Bluebird was releasead in 2017, so considering publishing’s long lead times, it was written well before the 2016 election. However, its sequel, Heaven, My Home, takes place in the immediate aftermath of the election, announcing itself as a Trump-era novel right from the start, as its protagonist, African-American Texas Ranger Darren Mathews, is described as “depressed, sick with a rage that was eating him from the inside. Daily, he marveled with a befuddled anger at what a handful of scared white people could do to a nation. He never again wanted to hear them question the point of rioting in Ferguson or Baltimore, or Watts and Detroit for that matter, hear them wonder why black folks would torch their own neighborhoods, because in an act of blind fury, white voters had just lit a match to the very country they claimed to love… After Obama, it was forgiveness betrayed.”

Some of Mathews’ misery stems from the fact that he’s stuck on desk duty at the Houston office, largely in an effort to save his marriage, which was hanging by a thread due in part to all the time he was spending on the road. He’s busy investigating the Aryan Brotherhood, poring through bank records and chat room transcripts, when an opportunity arises to travel to East Texas to help investigate the disappearance of a nine-year-old boy. Levi King is the son of a notorious white supremacist who is currently in jail on drug-related charges. (“Never mind that he’d skated on assault charges in a separate case that had left a black man, a father of two, dead, Darren thought.”)

Mathews’ boss sees a chance to take down the Brotherhood “before the change of power in Washington. Before a Trump Justice Department mistakes the Aryan Brotherhood for some sort of honor guard.” As a black Ranger, Mathews is seen as someone who can speak freely with the other African-Americans in the community, potential witnesses to the ongoing racial violence.

Adding an extra dollop of intrigue is Mathews’ strained relationship with his mother, who has been blackmailing her son due to a piece of evidence she has hidden away which implicates him in a cover-up. This is a direct continuation of events that took place in Bluebird, Bluebird, which is why I referred to this book as a sequel, not a word I generally use when discussing mystery series, where new installments are traditionally expected to stand alone. I wouldn’t suggest reading Heaven, My Home unless you’ve first read Bluebird, Bluebird.

I recognize that not everyone will be up for reading a novel that never lets you forget about the traumas our country is going through right now. A lot of the reason I read is for the pure joy of escapism. But Locke is a tremendously good writer, and there’s a big difference between reading an exciting mystery novel and something like, say, Proof of Conspiracy. (Don’t expect a review of that one anytime soon.) Long after the time that Trump has finally left office, people will turn to Heaven, My Home to find out what life was like in this era, but also for the pleasure of reading a fine and entertaining book.

“Bluebird, Bluebird” by Attica Locke

Bluebird, BluebirdAs a West Coast liberal, I tend to think of Texas as a foreign land, one I don’t think I’d feel very comfortable in. I have read a lot of very fine books set in Texas, however, but I don’t think I’ve ever encountered one that captures the Lone Star State in all its contradictions as well as Attica Locke’s Bluebird, Bluebird.

A major theme of the novel is a black lawman’s feelings about his home state, one which he loves dearly but is also clear-eyed enough to recognize often provides friendly harbor to racists ranging from genteel bigots to violent white-power gangs, the modern-day equivalent of the KKK. Darren Mathews is a Texas Ranger, a member of the super-elite law enforcement squad tasked with investigating the state’s most serious crimes. (Mathews, of course, is Locke’s fictional creation, but in the real world, the first black ranger wasn’t appointed until 1988, almost 165 years after the group’s founding.) Suspended from the force after he was suspected of interfering in an investigation involving a family friend, Mathews nevertheless heads to the small town of Lark to look into a pair of homicides after he hears about the case from an FBI agent. The first victim was a black man; the second, a white woman.

“Southern fables usually went the other way around: a white woman killed or harmed in some way, real or imagined, and then, like the moon follows the sun, a black man ends up dead.”

Mathews at first tries his investigation undercover, but soon has to resort to showing off his badge when he is threatened by local members of Aryan Brotherhood of Texas. Of course, Lark also has its own sheriff, and he’s none too pleased to have an interloper in his county, particularly one whose status with the Rangers is on shaky ground. “This is my deal down here,” he tells Mathews. “We know how to take care of our own.”

There were several times when I was pretty sure I knew where the story was going, but Locke always managed to surprise me, never taking the easy or predictable way out. (One example: the carefully-drawn relationship between Mathews, whose wife Lisa has never fully accepted his work with the Rangers, and the first victim’s wife Randie.) Still, I think what I’ll remember most about this book are the passages about the Mathews family’s relationship with their home state, which no doubt feel so authentic because Locke herself is a native Texan:

“The belief that they were special, that they had the stones to endure what others couldn’t, was the most quintessentially Texas thing about them. It was an arrogance born of genuine fortitude and a streak of hardheadedness six generations deep, a Homeric shield against the petty jealousies and lethal injustices that so occupied white folks’ free time, their oppressive and intrusive gaze into every aspect of black life… The Mathews family recognized it for what it was: a fevered obsession that didn’t really have anything to do with them, a preoccupation that weakened a man looking anywhere but at himself… You could run, wouldn’t nobody judge you if you did. But you could also stay and fight.”