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Racial Tensions Complicate The Search For A Missing Child In 'Heaven, My Home'

Sep 18, 2019
Originally published on September 19, 2019 11:03 am

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. "Heaven, My Home" is the latest crime novel by Attica Locke, a prize-winning novelist also known for her television work, which includes writing for the hit series "Empire" and the recent Netflix mini series "When They See Us." This new book is the second in a series about an African American Texas ranger. And our critic-at-large John Powers says that Locke knows how to write a mystery novel that stings.

JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: Some folks like crime stories set in enlightened Scandinavia, but I've always been a sucker for ones about cops working in tyrannies - Nazi Germany, say, or the Soviet Union, were enforcing the law can be riskier than breaking it. Such heroes don't simply have to track down dangerous crooks. They chance punishment, even death, should their investigations turn up anything that threatens the system. You get an unsettling American spin on this scenario in "Heaven, My Home," the timely new entry in the Highway 59 series about Darren Matthews, an African American who dropped out of an elite law school to become a Texas Ranger. It was written by Attica Locke, the gifted novelist and TV writer, whose first installment, "Bluebird, Bluebird," won the 2018 Edgar Award for Best Novel. Dropping us into an evocatively described East Texas milieu, you can almost feel the mosquito bites. Locke's new book finds Darren searching for the vanished child of a white supremacist.

Set right after the 2016 election, the action begins with the disappearance of Levi King, the 9-year-old son of an imprisoned member of the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas, a real-life gang of 3,000, by the way. Although Darren's boss normally grumbles that Darren's too obsessed with the Brotherhood, this time he assigns him to the case, ordering him off to Jefferson, a fading bayou town that now markets its quaint Southern past. And so Darren heads up Highway 59, a north-south route that for black people, Locke told us in "Bluebird, Bluebird," represents, and I quote, "an arc of possibility, hope paved and pointing north."

What greets him is the stonewalling citizenry you traditionally find in fictional small town America. There's the friendly sheriff you can't trust. There's the imperious local grandee - in this case, Levi's dowager grandmother Rosemary (ph). And there are those on the wrong side of the tracks - white ones like Levi's mom Marnie (ph), who's hooked up with a racist drug dealer Gil Thomason (ph), and African American ones like ancient Leroy Paige (ph), the de facto mayor of a minority enclave out by Caddo Lake that's being invaded by white riffraff, like Gil. As the last one to see Levi, the secretive Leroy is naturally a suspect.

This is a tough case made even tougher because Darren confronts special challenges as a black Texas Ranger. Despite his badge, he gets called the N-word to his face, treated as less than a servant by Rosemary and viewed with mistrust by local blacks and Native Americans who don't exactly associate cops with justice. Darren is never sure whether in a pinch his white police comrades will back him or sell him out.

Now the classic black cop in the south story is, of course, "In The Heat Of The Night," the Oscar-winning 1967 thriller starring Sidney Poitier as northern homicide detective Virgil Tibbs, who helps a racist sheriff solve a small-town Mississippi murder. It builds to a symbolic fantasy of racial reconciliation, one echoed in comic form by the "Green Book," which, half a century on, also won best picture.

Locke offers us no such consoling fantasy. For starters, Darren is no righteous Virgil Tibbs. He's an angry, confused, honorable man with marital woes, a serious drinking problem and a grasping mother who's blackmailing him. Raised by two very different uncles - one a spit-and-polish Texas Ranger, the other a defense attorney who's cynical about white man's justice - Darren keeps being torn between his respect for the law and his desire to protect his fellow African Americans from it. He makes a lot of mistakes. This isn't surprising, for he inhabits a world thick with the racial stickiness you'd expect when different ethnic groups have lived side-by-side since slavery. Even as white people control the power structure, they often wind up in bed with African Americans, both literally and metaphorically. When Darren solves the crime, it invariably has roots in the past, roots so old and tangled that merely solving a single crime can't possibly bring closure.

Like so many mysteries, "Heaven, My Home" winds up being about real estate. But in Locke's hands, the whole idea of real estate takes on a deep historical resonance. One reason Darren became a Ranger was because he just loves East Texas, from the smell of its air to the color of its soil. And he wants to defend his own and other African Americans' right to live there, as they have for generations. The white nativists may want them to leave, but why should they? East Texas and America is where they come from, too.

GROSS: John Powers reviewed "Heaven, My Home" by Attica Locke. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, our guest will be Edward Snowden, the former contractor for the National Security Agency, who in 2013 leaked documents to journalists revealing the U.S. government's comprehensive domestic surveillance program. We'll talk about his career at the NSA, becoming a whistleblower and his 40 days stuck in the Moscow airport. After being denied asylum from 20 countries, Snowden now lives in Russia. His new memoir is called "Permanent Record." I hope you'll join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF JESSICA WILLIAMS TRIO'S "LITTLE BIRD SONG")

GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF JESSICA WILLIAMS TRIO'S "LITTLE BIRD SONG") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.