Back in the days of the first Muslim ban—that catastrophe, a million catastrophes ago, at the onset of the current administration—people on social media started to post lists of the many remarkable things that immigrants (and Muslim immigrants specifically) have done in the United States, across every field. Lifesaving doctors, innovative leaders, great teachers. Steve Jobs, even. It was a bighearted impulse. Yet some of us thought, uneasily, Well, sure, that’s great, but what about the Muslim kid in a basement in San Jose getting stoned and playing Call of Duty? The president wasn’t trying to turn Americans against Islam out of a belief that the religion inhibits individual achievement. He was doing it because most Muslims have brown skin. This, of course, is not a thing anybody could, or should, hope to achieve their way out of—not even if it made them Steve Jobs.
Heaven, My Home, the new mystery by Attica Locke, feels consequential to me in a related way. It’s a very good book, but those are around. It’s a very good commentary on contemporary politics, but those are around too, even if it takes some sifting. What Locke does so expertly is to bring the personal and the political into balance, without ever, for an instant, sacrificing one to the other. She doesn’t ask her characters, many of them black, to be anything but themselves. That means they are on occasion spectacular or awful, on occasion deceptive or heroic, and frequently somewhere in the muddle in between (the place where most of us live). At the same time, they very definitely live political lives, because when your skin is dark in America, your existence is political of sad, choiceless necessity.
The result is profound: a novel about crime, politics, and race whose first and only allegiance is to the real human texture of life. You could wish we lived in a culture (of arts, of politics) in which that didn’t feel special or unusual. But as Locke makes clear in numerous subtle ways throughout the book, we don’t, and we may be getting farther away from it rather than closer.
Heaven, My Home is a sequel to Bluebird, Bluebird, Locke’s Edgar Award–winning procedural featuring Texas Ranger Darren Matthews. (She has also written for the television series Empire.) Here, Matthews investigates the disappearance of a boy named Levi with family ties to the Aryan Brotherhood. He has vanished on the immense, spectral body of water called Caddo Lake that straddles the border of Texas and Louisiana. Locke evokes the lake and its largely forgotten coastal towns with characteristic deftness: “the peaty scent of swamp water, the musk of oyster shells, and the sweet smell of Spanish moss.”
As this is unfolding, Matthews himself is anxiously contemplating a crime to protect a very old friend. His own mother is skillfully blackmailing him over it—while holding out the tantalizing possibility, despite years of evidence to the contrary, that she loves him and wants to build a relationship.
The key to Heaven, My Home is Locke’s nuanced portrait of Matthews as he faces down these problems. He’s as fully realized as any detective in contemporary American fiction: smart, confused, alienated, compassionate, angry. He drinks too much. He lives in a decisively post-2016 world, catching side glances from some white people and epithets from others. As he wades into the history of Jefferson, the small riverboat city in which Levi’s wealthy grandmother holds a surprising amount of clout, he realizes that the problems here are ancient ones—but that they have been given vicious new life.
It’s not supposed to look this easy. Heaven, My Home works on so many levels at once—as an adroit procedural, a precise character study, a lucid assessment of race in America—that it should feel gnarled and difficult, not, as it does instead, simultaneously graceful and dreamily absorbing. Locke is a marvel, humane but undeceived, reminiscent of writers as far apart as Tony Hillerman, Tana French, and Truman Capote.
There’s an endless debate about what genre fiction does, what conventions it protects, why it matters. Locke is a writer gifted and discerning enough to make that debate seem meaningless. If only the problems that she depicts so troublingly well—of hatred and history, poverty and cruelty—weren’t so close to hand.
Charles Finch is a literary critic and novelist. He is the author of the Charles Lenox mysteries.
• By Attica Locke
• Mulholland Books, 304 pages, $27