In Attica Locke’s 2018 Edgar Award–winning Bluebird, Bluebird, she introduced Darren Matthews, a black Texas Ranger whose investigations are inextricably tied up with racial tensions in East Texas. The sequel, Heaven, My Home (Mulholland, Sept.), is among several forthcoming titles that use crime fiction to explore issues of race and the way individuals and communities move on from trauma.
Locke’s second Highway 59 mystery, set in the immediate aftermath of a divisive presidential election, sees Darren assigned to search for a missing child whose family is connected with the Aryan Brotherhood. His lieutenant is blunt about the investigation’s aims: find the child and, in the process, collect enough information to dismantle the Brotherhood.
The timing is urgent, not only to find the missing child but because the feds want to present a case to the grand jury before an incoming administration’s new Justice Department “mistakes the Aryan Brotherhood for some sort of honor guard” and shuts down the investigation, Locke writes.
Locke, who also worked as a writer and producer on the TV series Empire, says that at first she thought she was writing a novel about the current political divide, and that “it took me a minute to understand what I was writing about was the concept of forgiveness.”
Donald Trump’s election, Locke says, left her wondering how to deal with her sense of betrayal, and how even after a new president moves into the White House, “my relationship with my fellow Americans remains.” She adds, “What do I do with the fact that so many people see the world the way he does?” Through Darren, she addresses a fictional version of this struggle: “How do I have fellowship with people I don’t agree with at all?”
Steph Cha’s characters wrestle with a similar question in Your House Will Pay (Ecco, Oct.). Set in present-day L.A., the novel addresses the contemporary resonance of the racial violence that engulfed the city following the arrest and beating of Rodney King three decades ago. “This current time period has really stark parallels to the early ’90s,” Cha says. “Things just haven’t changed. What’s cyclical is we’re paying attention to these kinds of stories again.”
Your House is told from the perspective of two people: Grace Park, a Korean-American woman, and Shawn Matthews, who is African-American and whose sister was killed by a Korean convenience store owner in 1991. Both are pulled into the center of a political maelstrom after a new crime with echoes in the past galvanizes social media into warring sides.
“I’ve never been interested in just the whodunit element of a mystery novel,” Cha says. “I’ve always thought of crime fiction as a lens into society.”
Kalisha Buckhanon also uses crime fiction as a way to magnify issues of racial injustice, focusing on how violence against black women is disproportionately ignored by law enforcement. “My writing is my activism,” says Buckhanon, who has also appeared as a commentator on true crime series for BET and the ID network. In her newest novel, Speaking of Summer (Counterpoint, July), Autumn Spencer, who lives in Harlem with her twin, finds herself alone in the city after her sister walks to the roof of their brownstone one wintry evening and disappears. Three months later, the state hasn’t yet declared Summer missing.
As Autumn continues her lonely search, the rest of her life starts to unravel. She grapples with the uncomfortable knowledge that she, an African-American woman, harbors the same “poison” as white women who cross the street at the sight of a black man. “When I imagined who could have hurt Summer,” Autumn says, “it never occurred to me to imagine anything but a black man.”
The emotional excavation and centering of Autumn's experience is as crucial to the story as revealing the mystery. “At the root of my work,” Buckhanon says, “is my concern over all the lost voices we’re not hearing.”
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article misstated the name of Your House Will Pay character Shawn Matthews.