The BookBrowse Review

Published September 16, 2020

ISSN: 1930-0018

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Heaven, My Home
Heaven, My Home
A Highway 59 Mystery
by Attica Locke

Paperback (25 Aug 2020), 304 pages.
Publisher: Mulholland
ISBN-13: 9780316363396

The thrilling follow-up to the award-winning Bluebird, Bluebird: Texas Ranger Darren Matthews is on the hunt for a boy who's gone missing - but it's the boy's family of white supremacists who are his real target.

9-year-old Levi King knew he should have left for home sooner; now he's alone in the darkness of vast Caddo Lake, in a boat whose motor just died. A sudden noise distracts him - and all goes dark.

Darren Matthews is trying to emerge from another kind of darkness; after the events of his previous investigation, his marriage is in a precarious state of re-building, and his career and reputation lie in the hands of his mother, who's never exactly had his best interests at heart. Now she holds the key to his freedom, and she's not above a little maternal blackmail to press her advantage.

An unlikely possibility of rescue arrives in the form of a case down Highway 59, in a small lakeside town where the local economy thrives on nostalgia for ante-bellum Texas - and some of the era's racial attitudes still thrive as well. Levi's disappearance has links to Darren's last case, and to a wealthy businesswoman, the boy's grandmother, who seems more concerned about the fate of her business than that of her grandson.

Darren has to battle centuries-old suspicions and prejudices, as well as threats that have been reignited in the current political climate, as he races to find the boy, and to save himself.

Attica Locke proves that the acclaim and awards for Bluebird, Bluebird were justly deserved, in this thrilling new novel about crimes old and new.

Like a tree planted by the water,
I shall not be moved.

—when Jessie Mae Hemphill sang it

Marion County

Texas, 2016

DANA WOULD have his tail if he didn't make it back across the lake by sundown. She'd said as much when she put him out on the steps of their trailer—which she did the second Rory Pitkin rolled up on his Indian Scout with the engine off, the toes of his motorcycle boots dragging in the dirt. She'd given Levi the key to their granddaddy's boathouse and a few dollars from the bottom of her purse and told him he had to be home before Ma and Gil got back or she'd burn all his Pokémon cards and make him watch. Lord, but his sister could be a bitch, he thought, enjoying the knifelike feel of the word so much he said it out loud, a secret between him and the cypress trees. The rust-red light pouring through the Spanish moss told him he'd never make it home by dark, which meant he'd broken two of his mama's rules: missing curfew and going boating alone on the lake. Levi was not allowed to take his pappy's old twelve-foot V-bottomed skiff into the open waters of Caddo Lake, which was so vast that, if you had the time, inclination, and a day's worth of smoked oysters and clean water, you could ride it all the way into Louisiana. Gil said it wasn't nothing like it nowhere else in the country, the only lake to cross two counties and a state line. But Gil said a lot of things that weren't true—that he loved Ma, for one. He sure as shit didn't act like it. Levi's real daddy, he used to come up on her frying bologna on the stove and kiss her neck, make her titter and smile, kiss him back. But anytime Gil walked in a room, Ma was just as likely to cuss him as go stone still with terror, as if she could camouflage herself against the brown corduroy couch, where Gil had left a dozen cigarette burns since he'd moved in. Levi didn't trust Gil any more than he would a smile on a gator. But the water, Levi thought, now that he was traveling it on his own, well, ol' Gil might have been right about that. Caddo Lake was a monster, a body of water that could swallow a boy like him whole. In most places it resembled a weed-choked swamp more than it did a proper lake, a cypress forest that had flooded and been abandoned eons ago, and Levi could admit he was scared out here alone. Through the open sound south of Goat Island, it was a straight shot to Hopetown, the small community of trailers and shacks on the northeastern shore where Levi lived with his mother and sister and Gil. He blew away a lick of blond hair that had slipped over his eyes and gunned the boat's motor. He yanked the tiller left, chancing a shortcut.

In just the past few minutes, the light had melted from the color of plum brandy to the bluish gray of coming nightfall, and a December breeze curled up under the thin fabric of his windbreaker, a blue and white KARNACK HIGH SCHOOL INDIANS jacket he stole from his sister's half of the closet. He got a sudden image of her and Rory Pitkin rolling around naked in the room he and Dana shared and felt a quiver go through his body that embarrassed him. He wasn't stupid. He knew what they were doing. Fucking, CT called it.

This was his fault, CT's, he decided. Levi had been playing football on CT's Xbox and lost track of time. He wanted to get a fantasy team in place because Ma had said there might be an Xbox under the tree this year if Gil came through on this deal he was running out of Jefferson. But in all the time Gil had been around, almost none of his plans ever amounted to anything that made Levi's life easier. They still didn't have milk in the fridge half the time.

Put out of the trailer for the afternoon, Levi had motored the small boat seven miles along the lake's coast to CT's family's cabin, way on the other side of the lake in Harrison County, had lost himself playing the video game, enjoying something he knew, deep down, he'd never have. He'd been so jealous of his friend that he'd stolen one of the game's controllers on the way out, slipping it into the pocket of his windbreaker. He hated when he did stuff like that, but neither could he stop himself. Something just came over him sometimes. It's like his brain just went black with want—for the stuff other kids had, be it an Xbox or a daddy living at home—so he lashed out blindly. He felt the corner of the controller pressing through the nylon jacket, poking him in his bony side. Out here on the water with only God as a witness, he felt hot with shame.

Full Excerpt

Excerpted from Heaven, My Home by Attica Locke. Copyright © 2019 by Attica Locke. Excerpted by permission of Mulholland. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

In this timely follow-up to Bluebird, Bluebird, Texas Ranger Darren Mathews navigates racism in Trump-era America while investigating the disappearance of a child near the vast, haunting waters of Caddo Lake.

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Attica Locke's 2017 novel Bluebird, Bluebird introduced us to Texas Ranger Darren Mathews, who became embroiled in a complex small-town drama while investigating a possible hate crime. Heaven, My Home, the second installment in the series starring the Ranger, weaves an even more intricate location-based plot on the banks of sprawling Caddo Lake. At the opening of the novel, Darren is struggling with multiple elements of his personal and professional life. He's recently reunited with his wife, Lisa, who initiated a separation after his unauthorized involvement in a situation that may have led his friend Mack, a fellow Black man, to kill Ronnie Malvo, a known white supremacist and member of the ABT (Aryan Brotherhood of Texas). Darren is uncertain as to Mack's guilt or innocence, but has concealed evidence to protect his friend, a fact he's hiding from Lisa. To smooth things over with his wife, Darren has taken on a desk position, resolving to stay out of the field, and cut back on his drinking. At the same time, Darren's mother, Bell, has gotten her hands on the Malvo case evidence and is effectively blackmailing him—expecting favors, monetary and otherwise, for her silence.

These details are introduced against the backdrop of the incoming Trump administration, and the rise of hate crimes in its wake. Darren's supervising lieutenant, Fred Wilson, hoping to score a strike against the ABT, wants Darren to investigate the case of a nine-year-old boy from the tiny community of Hopetown who took a boat out on Caddo Lake one night and never returned home. The boy in question is Levi King, son of incarcerated ABT "captain" Bill King. Wilson hopes that in the course of investigating Levi's disappearance, Darren can obtain information from Bill King, or from Levi's mother, Marnie, that could take down the Brotherhood. As he starts his investigation, Darren allows himself to consider the shameful possibility of extracting a false confession from King—a concerned father who may be desperate enough to negotiate for his son's life—that would allow him to wash his hands of the Malvo case.

This may already sound like a lot, but it's only the foundation of a drama involving land disputes, moral gray areas and deceit in a stretch of country steeped in generational racism and trauma.

Locke has written for television—including the Fox series Empire—in addition to novels, and it's easy to imagine how the sensibilities she's developed from one medium may inform the other. The intricate, shifting plot elements in Heaven, My Home aren't just deftly handled, but deeply intertwined, making for profound world-building that echoes broader American social and cultural realities. At the same time, Locke's writing is approachable; it has literary value, but could appeal to those who aren't normally inclined towards literary work.

Despite the novel's serious subject matter, it's purely entertaining at times; subtle humor and sharp dialogue work to give the text charm. In one scene, Darren goes looking for Leroy Page, an area landowner who was reportedly the last person to see Levi, and encounters Donald Goodfellow and his son Ray, Caddo Natives who are distrustful of Darren and his Ranger status. When they're joined by Donald's mother Margaret, she breaks the tension by asking Darren in for a meal:

"We've got dush'-cut and dah-bus for lunch," she said to Darren. A clear invitation that riled young Ray Goodfellow.
"He's hunting after Leroy, E'-kah," he said.
"He's fishing," she told Darren. "But you welcome to join us while you wait."

Margaret's "He's fishing" cleverly echoes Ray's "He's hunting" while also giving Darren the information he needs, and the word "fishing" has a double meaning that encompasses what Darren is doing as well (fishing for information). This brief, cinematic exchange contributes to the carefully constructed feel of the novel, and also characterizes Margaret as kind and cool-headed, all within a few lines of dialogue. Furthermore, the hint of dialect adds an authentic nuance to the author's depiction of her Caddo characters.

None of this is to say that Locke isn't equally in tune with elements that pertain purely to written fiction. For instance, she uses concise description to make the monstrous, swampy Caddo Lake a vivid presence. When Darren speaks to Marnie about her son, her eyes—described as a "muddy green"—recall the body of water for him. Divining the lake from an unrelated object makes it loom all the more hauntingly in the background.

Similarly, Darren's moral struggles, which turn both inward on his conscience and outward to the powers he's laboring under, are depicted with a sensitivity that illuminates the inseparability of the law from both the people it employs and the criminal organization it seeks to dismantle:

He couldn't believe he was actually entertaining the idea of fabricating evidence, didn't recognize himself at all in this moment...He felt a slow rage building inside of him at the idea that Bill "Big Kill" King could just forget that he'd been a member of a gang whose initiation rite was the obliterating of a black life. He had savagely killed a man and never done any time for it after a Marion County jury had let him walk; it was selling opioids and meth to whites that had crossed a line for the good folks out here.

The author uses effective description and characterization to portray human relationships, nature and history as inevitably linked. This makes the book not just an insightful tale for our current times, but an eloquent and cohesive piece of dramatic writing.

Readers should be aware that while Heaven, My Home can be read by itself, it does read as part of a series. While Darren's investigation in Hopetown wraps up conclusively, some plot points not related directly to the investigation are left unresolved, and the last part of the book feels more engineered to segue into the next one than to end on any kind of satisfying note. For that reason, reading this volume could prove frustrating for someone who isn't committed to the complete line of novels. That being said, now seems like as good a time as any to get in on this topical and intriguing crime series.

Reviewed by Elisabeth Cook

New York Times
The story has legs, the characters have character, and the dialogue has a wonderful regional tang. But it’s Locke’s descriptive language that gets me. It’s even there in the simplicity of an old man’s description, rich with love and longing, of the 'little piece of heaven' where he had hoped to 'spend the rest of what God give me … fishing, taking care of my horses, growing my collards and peppers.'

Washington Post
[Locke] captures the acute challenge of being a black man in America, regardless of education, title or pedigree...Entertainment value is paramount, and she manages to deliver it while also immersing readers in a world where the wound of America’s racial history is raw, infected and resistant to treatment.

Shelf Awareness
Both a fascinating, smartly plotted mystery and a pertinent picture of the contemporary United States, Heaven, My Home is refreshing, dour and thrilling all at once. Readers will be anxious for more of Ranger Darren Mathews. This scintillating murder mystery, set in Trump-era East Texas, with a black main cast and racial concerns, is gripping, gorgeously written and relevant.

The world of Highway 59 contains multitudes, rich and poor and booksmart and horse-sense smart and of many races and ethnicities. Readers can rejoice that there are has plenty of volumes possible in the future of a mystery series with atmosphere, depth, and boundless compassion for its characters. Attica Locke combines first-class procedural action with wise contemplation on our country's modern divides. Heaven, My Home should be on any mystery lover's TBR pile this fall.

Locke is brilliant at creating tense mysteries where the setting is as alive, and important, as the characters without distracting-but rather enhancing-the mystery element. You get history, a great mystery, smart twists, rich characters, and a deep exploration of the justice - and injustice - system of our country.

Library Journal
Edgar Award winner Locke is definitely worth following, here presenting a well-crafted mystery that evokes a steamy east Texas and the racial tensions inherent in small Southern towns.

Publishers Weekly (starred review)
[A] searing sequel to 2017's Bluebird, Bluebird...This one's another Edgar contender.

Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
In addition to her gifts for tight pacing and intense lyricism, Locke shows with this installment of her Highway 59 series a facility for unraveling the tangled strands of the Southwest's cultural bracing that you can't wait to discover what happens next along her East Texas highway.

Booklist (starred review)
This is a beautifully and instantly gripping crime novel...Locke is one of the emerging stars of crime fiction.

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Caddo Lake

Caddo Lake surrounded by treesCaddo Lake and its surrounding wetlands cover approximately 26,000 acres on the Texas-Louisiana border. It's the only naturally-formed lake in Texas, and it's also significant for its large size and unique biodiversity. Known for natural beauty, including its trademark giant cypress trees and Spanish moss, Caddo Lake is a popular destination for camping, hunting, fishing and hiking.

The lake takes its name from the Caddo Nation, a confederacy of Native tribes that once occupied areas of East Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas and Oklahoma. The word "Caddo" comes from a French shortening of "kadohadacho," which means "real chief" in the Caddo language. The Caddo, who at one time maintained a large matrilineal, agriculturally-based society, are descended from people who inhabited the area from as early as 200 BC onward, and may have had contact with Aztec and Mayan societies. The Caddo encountered French and Spanish settlers in the 18th century. Colonialism eventually forced them out of their ancestral homeland and into central Oklahoma, where the modern-day Caddo Nation is located.

Caddo legend suggests that the lake was created by an earthquake. A more recent theory claims it may have been formed sometime in the 19th century by a log jam that pushed water out of the Red River and into Big Cypress Bayou. Currently, Caddo Lake is preserved by an approximately 1,500-foot dam that was constructed by the Army Corps of Engineers between 1968 and 1971. Caddo Lake State Park, like many U.S. state parks, owes much of its current infrastructure to the Civilian Conservation Corps, or CCC, the Depression-era program that employed young men for public works projects. Those enrolled in the CCC created roads, cabins and trails using the "rustic" style of the National Park Service, which sought to blend architecture with nature.

In 1993, parts of Caddo Lake were recognized as an international wetlands site, becoming the 13th place in the U.S. to be given this designation. Today, the Caddo Lake National Wildlife Refuge makes efforts to conserve and manage wildlife in the area, which is home to some of the richest and most diverse plant life in the state of Texas; some of its cypress trees are upwards of 400 years old, and there is also an abundance of pine forest. Over 200 different bird species reside there, and it's considered a significant habitat for waterfowl in particular. Other animals native to the area include turtles, snakes, alligators and fish. The variety of game fish makes the lake a popular fishing destination.

The Caddo Lake area has gained something of a reputation for being haunted, or just having a spooky atmosphere. This may be due in part to its reputation for crime in the 19th century, during which time the thriving port city of Jefferson received steamboats from New Orleans, and it was claimed there was a murder every day there. It could also be related to the fate of the Mittie Stephens, a steamboat that went up in flames on its way to Jefferson in an 1869 disaster that killed around 60 people. These days, there isn't much in the way of human habitation along Caddo Lake, and the presence of ghost towns adds to the eerie atmosphere. Additionally, like much of East Texas, the area has become a popular place for Bigfoot sightings.

Caddo Lake, courtesy of Texas A&M Agrilife Extension

Filed under Nature and the Environment

By Elisabeth Cook

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