Attica Locke’s debut novel is a great example of why diversity in fiction can be such a pleasure. In many respects, it’s a typical thriller, with its reluctant hero, wide-ranging conspiracy, and multi-threaded plot that all comes together in the end. But this hero’s reluctance and the history behind it brings a freshness to the story and keeps it from feeling like the same old thing.
The novel’s hero, Jay Porter is a struggling African-American Houston attorney. It’s 1981; his wife, Bernie, is pregnant; and he’s taking cases that are more about making money than righting wrongs. (Although among his usual clientele, there’s not all that much money to be made.) Jay’s history has made him suspicious of the establishment. As a young man active in the Civil Rights movement, he was arrested and nearly sent to prison. He got off mostly because one of the jurors believed in him and refused to find him guilty. The experience got him interested in studying law, but it also left him frightened, sleeping with a gun under his pillow.
Jay gets drawn into an unwanted mystery during a birthday boat trip with his wife. As they are celebrating, they hear screams and gunshots and then discover a well-dressed white woman in the water. Jay, doing what even reluctant heroes do, jumps in to save her. He takes her to the police station and hopes that’s the end of it, but, of course, it isn’t. Jay’s too good and too curious to just let it rest.
As Jay is trying to figure out who the mysterious woman is and what happened that night on the river, his father-in-law, a local minister, pulls him into a union dispute. The black longshoremen are hoping to get the whole recently integrated union to strike for equal pay for black and white employees, and it appears that some of the white men in the union are reacting to the idea with violent attacks on the black union members. Jay’s father-in-law is hoping Jay will speak to the mayor to get help from the police. Despite having once known the mayor as a fellow activist, Jay wants nothing to do with her today, but he agrees.
Both of these storylines puts Jay in worlds he’d rather avoid, and they force him to remember past injustices and suspicions. In flashbacks, Locke takes readers back to the 60s, the world of Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Stokely Carmichael, and the burgeoning Black Power movement. It was also the world of COINTELPRO, when activists’ phones were bugged and their organizations infiltrated. These flashbacks, which give the reasons for Jay’s mistrust, even paranoia, set Jay apart from so many reluctant thriller heroes. Jay’s reasons for keeping his head down are rooted in experience, in knowing firsthand what happens when you stand up.
The present-day storylines, on the other hand, are pretty typical thriller fodder. There are real-estate deals and greedy oil companies. The rich and powerful have all the advantages, and the ties between them are near impossible to untangle. The story lags at times, and there’s a point toward the end, when all is being explained, that bordered on mind-numbing. It was difficult to keep the pace moving with all these plotlines, and I think there was one plotline too many. I like a leaner plot. Locke’s second novel, The Cutting Season, was better in this respect.
But as first novels go, this is a better than respectable effort. Now with three novels under her belt (including a second Jay Porter novel, Pleasantville), Attica Locke is proving to be a valuable new voice in the world of crime fiction. I’m glad to see it, and I look forward to reading Pleasantville and more from her.