With “Black Water Rising,” Attica Locke staked a literary claim on Texas and the South a decade ago by providing a unique African American perspective on the region’s history of racial strife, politics and corporate skullduggery.
Locke kicked it up a notch with 2017’s “Bluebird, Bluebird,” the first in a series that introduced Darren Mathews, a cop who quit law school to join the Texas Rangers after the real-life dragging death of James Byrd Jr. in 1998. Mathews’ deep love for Texas and ambivalence about what it had become in the ramp-up to the 2016 election are powerful themes in “Bluebird.”
By its searing conclusion “Bluebird” had drawn Mathews into a legal and ethical morass as he tried to help family friend Rutherford “Mack” McMillan, accused of killing an Aryan Brotherhood of Texas member. Twisted and suspenseful, “Bluebird” was a literary high-wire act that begged the question — could Locke pull it off again in the Texas Ranger’s sophomore outing?
Her new book, “Heaven, My Home,” picks up soon after the events of “Bluebird,” but the novel reads like a stand-alone, filling in the “Bluebird” backstory quickly.
The plot of “Heaven, My Home” may be complex, but it’s worth every blistering word Locke puts on the page. Set in December 2016, the story starts four weeks after Donald Trump is elected, and Mathews is filled with rage over the election: “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.”
His work on a combined FBI, ATF, DEA and Texas Rangers task force investigating the Aryan Brotherhood has kept Mathews at home in Houston, allowing his marriage much-needed time to heal. His lawyer wife’s profound lack of understanding of his love for the Rangers and his life on the road is a central source of strife.
Mathews’ conflicted love of the law and his concerns as a black man in America contributed to his questionable involvement in the open murder investigation against his friend Mack. With the district attorney sniffing around, Mathews is both in the crosshairs of a hate group and literally under the gun from prosecutors.
Six years into a marathon investigation, Mathews and other task force members feel pressured, uncertain of their mission if “a Trump Justice Department mistakes the Aryan Brotherhood for some sort of honor guard.”
When Levi King, the 9-year-old son of imprisoned Aryan Brotherhood captain Bill “Big Kill” King, disappears from Hopetown, four hours north of Houston, Mathews jumps back into the fieldwork he loves.
The ranger dutifully heads up Highway 59 to Hopetown. It’s a small settlement of black residents, owners of the property since Reconstruction, and Native Indians near Caddo Lake whose peace has been shattered by a war with a group of poor whites including King’s wife.
In a case rife with political and racial turns, Mathews and his task force get a close look inside the Brotherhood’s leadership. He also realizes the boy’s abduction may not be what it seems.
By the time the mystery of Levi’s disappearance is solved, “Heaven, My Home” has brought justice and a measure of mercy to a wide array of characters, not the least of which is the troubled hero whose life and emotions are laid bare.
Along the way, Attica Locke makes us understand Ranger Darren Mathews, even forgive him as he tries to find forgiveness for various characters in this riveting novel. That alone makes it one of the most affecting mysteries of the year.
Woods is a book critic, editor and author of several anthologies and crime novels.