• The Listener
  • North & South
  • Noted
  • RNZ
Attica Locke: “Trump had been elected and violence was starting.” Photo/Alamy

How a new wave of US crime writers reflect the charged racial politics of the Trump era

Craig Sisterson reviews two new novels by Attica Locke and Steph Cha. 

Is forgiveness divine or foolish? That question scratches the mind of Texas Ranger Darren Matthews as he looks out the kitchen window of Leroy Page’s historic house. Matthews has visited Page, a fellow black Texan, looking for information about the missing nine-year-old son of an incarcerated leader of the Aryan Brotherhood.

Page is an old man descended from freed slaves who established Hopetown; now, white supremacists squat on his rural property. He may have been the last to see the missing boy.

“Black folks are the most forgiving people on Earth,” says Page to Matthews. To be truly free they had to let go of any rage over what white folks had done. Matthews recalls another Texas kitchen years earlier, where his father and uncle debated whether Christian forgiveness should be limitless, or whether it risked granting impunity to oppressors, cleansing them of responsibility.

A small moment in Attica Locke’s transcendent tale, Heaven, My Home, but the question raised is a key part of the novel’s DNA: does forgiveness make black people saints or stooges?

A native Texan who’s spent much of her adult life in Los Angeles, 46-year-old Locke has grappled with racial dynamics and social issues affecting her home state and nation in several outstanding crime novels. When writing Heaven, My Home, she also wrestled with betrayal. She’s called it working out her post-Trump post-traumatic stress disorder in print.

After she’d spent a decade as a working but unproduced screenwriter in Hollywood, Locke’s first three crime novels attracted plenty of acclaim, winning or being shortlisted for numerous literary and crime-writing prizes. She introduced black Texas Ranger Darren Matthews in her fourth, Bluebird, Bluebird, written during the campaign season for the 2016 US presidential election.

“I never thought Trump would win,” says Locke, her voice rising. “I knew his rhetoric was dangerous. I knew he was unearthing an ugliness that we were all kind of ignoring, about white terrorism and racism that was hidden and he gave licence to come out. But I firmly believed this nation wasn’t going to elect him. So, when it did, it changed my book overnight. Suddenly, I looked like this Cassandra who was prophesying about everything, and that was not my intent.”

Bluebird, Bluebird swept three major crime-writing prizes: the Edgar, Steel Dagger and Anthony. Having set that book just prior to the election but concluding it with something of a cliffhanger in terms of Matthews’ status as a Texas Ranger and a free man, Locke knew Heaven, My Home had to follow immediately afterwards rather than skipping too far ahead in time.

“It made sense to me to pick up after our nation had been changed, in that period where you weren’t sure how bad it was going to get,” she says. “You knew something bad was happening because Trump had been elected and violence was starting, but it was before the changing of the guard. Personally, I’m leaning into this because, as a human, I’m trying to navigate feelings of betrayal by my fellow Americans of people who look like me.”

Locke has lived all her life in the post-Civil Rights era. She’s seen plenty of violence and racism, but always felt that for the most part the US had been on a positive trajectory, from desegregation through to voting in a black president. “When Dr [Martin Luther] King talked about the arc of the moral universe bending towards justice, that is what my life has been like. Every f---ing day until Trump was elected.”

It had been an easy narrative, says Locke, to believe that what her parents had marched for during the Civil Rights era was coming to pass. Having Trump follow Obama was a huge gut-punch that messed with her head, broke her heart, and almost altered her personality. “I’m an optimistic person, but I was so thrown … It was really confusing for me. I don’t think I could have written this book without sinking into some of the feelings around that.”

In Heaven, My Home, Matthews is working a desk job monitoring the Aryan Brotherhood, only to return to the field when Levi King goes missing. He’s also battling family blackmail, broken compromises and his own sobriety and morality. His superiors want to find the boy to use him as a lever against his incarcerated father and take down the Brotherhood before the new administration shifts law enforcement priorities away from the threats posed by rising white supremacy.

Locke has once again crafted a sublime novel that’s both timely and timeless.

Crime fiction can be a great vehicle for exploring big real-life issues because it takes ideological debates and grounds them, says Locke. “My husband is a public defender and when something happens in Sacramento, the state capital of California, he sees it as it plays out at street level. It’s interesting that in crime fiction you’re not talking about the theory of it, or the Halls of Congress where something gets decided, you’re seeing how that new law plays out on the street. How do the things we believe in, the things we hold up as our ideals as a nation, how does that look at street level? And I think that’s what crime fiction does. It takes things from theory and makes them tangible, makes them urgent, makes them right in your face.”

Steph Cha: “walloped” by the tragedy of a black teen shot by a Korean-born shopkeeper. Photo/Supplied
Rage, and something like complicity; a few years ago, Steph Cha first heard about the 1991 killing of Latasha Harlins, a real-life tragedy that “just kind of walloped” the Los Angeles author. Harlins was shot in the back of the head by Soon Ja Du, a Korean-born shopkeeper in south LA, who wrongly accused the black teenager of trying to steal a bottle of orange juice. It happened less than a fortnight after the video of the Rodney King beating made the news.

“I knew from my reaction to that story I was going to write about it,” says Cha, whose first three novels starred Korean-American sleuth Juniper Song. The result is Your House Will Pay, a powerful delving into a city and its inhabitants as a Korean family and a black family deal with tragedies present and past and LA teeters after a black teenager is shot by police.

“It’s a story about the place I grew up and heavily involves the community I grew up in,” says Cha, who says she felt “guilt by association” when she discovered the story of Harlins and the ethnicity of the killer. “Usually, Korean-Americans or Asian-Americans generally are not that centred in conversations about American racial politics, which tend to be talked about in black and white terms … I wanted to write about this feeling, in addition to thinking about Los Angeles and all the issues that are adjacent to the story, because I also have a strong interest in social justice and this is a story that deals with Korean American and anti-blackness.”

Around the same time, unarmed black teenager Michael Brown was killed by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, sparking riots and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement.

“I was thinking of Soon Ja Du and Latasha Harlins and all of this was just in the news constantly,” recalls Cha. “I kept thinking, ‘Wow, this is the same story.’ It wasn’t just that the early 1990s in LA felt extremely relevant to me, it was also relevant to what was going on today.”

Cha says she wanted to write a contemporary story with roots in the time leading up to and during the LA riots, addressing the cyclical nature of such violence and unresolved issues.

“Which all kind of traces back to the legacy of America, right? A country that has been built on genocide and slavery. This idea of guilt by inheritance, or of being forced to deal with a legacy that is violent. It’s part of the birthright of every American, whether or not we want to face it.”

Your House Will Pay is a character-centric crime tale focused on Grace Park, a pharmacist working in the family business and still living with her parents, and Shawn Matthews, a middle-aged black man trying to help his cousin, Ray, stay straight after a long stint in prison.

Cha admits her new novel took her far longer to write than the previous three – about four and a half years – largely thanks to the care she took trying to get Shawn’s voice and his family life right.

Although Grace Park is a very different character from Juniper Song, Cha says she quickly felt comfortable writing from Grace’s perspective. “I felt I had some authority to write her as a Korean-American who had grown up in not exactly similar circumstances – my family never murdered anyone – but in that community,” says Cha. “I did not have any similar familiarity with writing a black family. I had no experience of that, and I think I had to approach it with exactly the level of care that I did. Because I think if I’d been cavalier about it, I could have finished this book two years ago, three years ago, and it just wouldn’t have been good.”

Cha now describes her work as “social crime fiction”, noting that if you write deeply enough about a place, you’re going to be writing about social problems. She started writing her first mystery, Follow Her Home, in response to Raymond Chandler – an author she loves but who is a product of his times. “I wanted to write about my Los Angeles, Korean-American LA.”

She quickly realised that crime fiction “is a great tool for exploring all kinds of social-justice issues”, noting that it is the tradition of noir to use thrilling tales to dig into the poisons in the water supply. “I’m very interested in continuing to write about crime, because it is so revealing,” says Cha. “You learn so much by looking at who is hurting whom in a society. There’s nothing else that shows the collisions and the conflict within a place quite like crime fiction.”

YOUR HOUSE WILL PAY, by Steph Cha (Faber, $32.99); HEAVEN, MY HOME, by Attica Locke (Serpent’s Tail, $32.99)

This article was first published in the February 1, 2020 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

For more on the political, cultural and literary life of the country, follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram and sign up to our weekly newsletter.