There’s a place somewhere between the overdone, show-off prose of some “literary” fiction, and the merely serviceable, pulp genre stuff. In either case, the language can kick you out of the story. “That’s a beautiful sentence!” you think. Or “This is godawful stuff.” It doesn’t matter which, because the same thing happens. For a moment, you’ve forgotten what you’re reading.
Attica Locke’s Black Water Rising inhabits a middle place, where the prose is luscious in service of the story, not merely for its own sake. Locke tells an absorbing tale while giving the reader some fine turns of phrase to enjoy.
Houston in the early 1980’s was not the diverse city it is now. There, business is not great for Jay Porter, an African American attorney. His clients don’t always pay. His most promising case is a black hooker who says she was involved with a white politician, but she could be lying.
Jay’s got a wife he loves and a baby on the way. He just wants to stay under the radar. The last thing he needs is trouble in any form, such as politics, race relations, or an elusive white woman who may or may not be a murderer.
But Jay is a good man. He can’t resist helping when he’s needed, so he’s roped into saving the woman’s life. He’s also roped into representing a young black kid who was beaten by whites in the midst of a dockworkers union struggle. More roping: the union is divided between black and white, and they need someone to talk to the mayor.
And Jay knows her. Personally.
Now Jay’s life becomes even more complicated, with threats, a strange man in a dark-colored Ford, and a missing, unregistered gun that happens to be Jay’s. He has a few behinds to save, and one of them is his.
Houston 1981 is so clearly drawn in Locke’s story that it seems she must have been there, but she was too young then to have known the history her book tells. In the acknowledgements, she thanks her father for “accepting phone calls at all hours to answer my many questions about Houston and the civil rights movement.” This makes me wonder if, although her characters are fictional, some of what her father saw may have become what Porter sees.
Whatever the truth, the character of Jay Porter is vividly realized and deeply felt. He has given up the civil rights fight because it’s too hard and because there was so much betrayal, not just of himself but of his friends. He couldn’t beat the system so he’s trying to work within it, but the system is corrupt, and Jay—well, Jay isn’t.
Locke is a television and screen writer, and those skills add vivid cinematography to Jay Porter’s story. Locke weaves TV-style action, personal drama, history and politics into a compelling mystery.
Carefully researched and well told, Black Water Rising is Attica Locke’s first novel. The second, The Cutting Season, is on my “to read” list.
Petrea Burchard is a local Pasadena photographer, blogger, actress, voice-over talent and author. She contributes book reviews to Hometown Pasadena, for which we and our readers are very grateful. Find more Petrea doings, writings, and photography at PetreaBurchard.com and LivingVicuriously.
Camelot & Vine can be bought locally at Vroman’s, the Pasadena Museum of History, and Webster’s Fine Stationers in Altadena and Flintridge Bookstore and Coffeehouse. The ebook version is available for Kindle, Nook, iBooks, Kobo, Diesel, Smashwords, and the Sony eReader.