A little boy nicks his grandfather’s skiff and ventures out alone on Caddo Lake, a “wetland maze” of “bayous, tributaries and inlets like a tangle of snakes,” possibly haunted by “souls roaming the waters, haints hiding in the trees.” He soon gets lost, and so do we — in the bewitching story and luscious language of HEAVEN, MY HOME (Mulholland/Little, Brown, $27), Attica Locke’s latest novel rooted in the landscape of East Texas. Levi King seems to be a normal 9-year-old testing the rules of behavior defined by his father, Bill (Big Kill) King. But because Big Kill happens to be a captain in the Aryan Brotherhood, Levi’s disappearance has far-reaching consequences. “A little over a month from now, we get a new man in the White House,” a local lawman argues, and “before a Trump Justice Department mistakes the Aryan Brotherhood for some sort of honor guard,” the F.B.I. would like to take down the boys and deliver them to a grand jury.
The loaded job of finding Levi and keeping the Brotherhood from starting a race war lands on Darren Mathews, the African-American Texas Ranger who keeps this series as honest as it is politically pointed. Now that he’s back with his wife, Mathews hopes to get down to work without domestic distractions. But he can’t ignore his mother, Bell, a monstrous matriarch who has no compunctions about resorting to blackmail (something to do with a gun withheld from evidence in a previous case) when she wants to get her way. “For a while he’d managed to convince himself that Bell’s motives were not so much vindictive as desperate,” but even as Mathews clears chickweed from around her trailer and leaves her wads of cash, he knows she’ll always hold the whip hand over his life.
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.”
“Sweet dreams!” is one of the dearest wishes you can extend to a loved one, and Nevada Barr goes for that healing magic in WHAT ROSE FORGOT (Minotaur, $28.99), a decided departure from her outdoorsy mysteries featuring Anna Pigeon, a law-enforcement agent with the National Park Service. Here the protagonist is Rose Dennis, a 68-year-old widow, once a well-known painter, who wakes up one morning to find herself drugged and defenseless in the “memory care unit” of a nursing home. Rose is rational enough to acknowledge that something’s wrong with her (hearing voices in your head is “always bad”), but once she palms the red pills that are making her so foggy, she’s convinced that she’s being held captive.
Rose is the kind of old person most old people wish they were. “I refuse to be fluffy,” she declares with magnificent spirit. She’s clever enough to extricate herself from the nursing home, agile enough to scale a roof while escaping an assassin and brave enough to win the admiration of her 13-year-old granddaughter, who becomes her awed companion on this adventure. So why is someone trying to kill her? Hint, hint: Ask your banker, Rose!
Those who doubt the influence of the internet on storytelling should take a deep dive into Sarah Lotz’s MISSING PERSON (Mulholland/Little, Brown, $27). Quaintly, for a work of technofiction, Lotz starts off with a conventional mystery plot about a young Irishman, Shaun Ryan, who suspects that his Uncle Teddy, the black sheep of the family, might not have died in an auto accident in America 20 years earlier. His search puts Shaun in touch with the amateur sleuths at a website that matches missing persons with unidentified bodies; pretty soon, they’re convinced Teddy died at the hands of a serial killer they’re tracking, a killer who preys on gay men.
Although Shaun questions those who knew Teddy, the real work is done by the website’s techno-savvy staff, who make use of Skype, chat rooms and internet forums. Unfortunately, the only distinctive member of the group is its leader, Chris Guzman, and that’s only because she’s in a wheelchair.
The Swedes have a lock on hard-hitting crime novels on the order of THREE HOURS (Quercus, $26.99), the latest in a string of superb procedurals written by Anders Roslund and Borge Hellstrom, and translated by Elizabeth Clark Wessel. Detective Superintendent Ewert Grens, surely the most brooding presence on the Stockholm police force, has suffered a lot and seen a lot. Yet even he is floored when a cargo ship arrives bearing the corpses of 73 people who suffocated on the journey, victims of the human trafficking the authors call “the most heinous crime of our modern times.”
The traffickers loaded up their cargo in Africa, so that’s where Grens goes next, immersing himself in the roots of this evil business. The change of scenery may set off the real action, but our minds are still locked on that cargo hold back in Stockholm.
Marilyn Stasio has covered crime fiction for the Book Review since 1988. Her column appears twice a month.
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