Review: Pleasantville by Attica Locke

pleasantville by attica lockeFormat read: ebook provided by the publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genre: mystery, thriller
Series: Jay Porter #2
Length: 432 pages
Publisher: Harper Collins
Date Released: April 21, 2015
Purchasing Info: Author’s Website, Publisher’s Website, Goodreads, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Book Depository

In this sophisticated thriller, lawyer Jay Porter, hero of Locke’s bestseller Black Water Rising, returns to fight one last case, only to become embroiled once again in a dangerous game of shadowy politics and a witness to how far those in power are willing to go to win

Fifteen years after the events of Black Water Rising, Jay Porter is struggling to cope with catastrophic changes in his personal life and the disintegration of his environmental law practice. His victory against Cole Oil is still the crown jewel of his career, even if he hasn’t yet seen a dime thanks to appeals. But time has taken its toll. Tired and restless, he’s ready to quit.

When a girl goes missing on Election Night, 1996, in the neighborhood of Pleasantville—a hamlet for upwardly-mobile blacks on the north side of Houston—Jay, a single father, is deeply disturbed. He’s been representing Pleasantville in the wake of a chemical fire, and the case is dragging on, raising doubts about his ability.

The missing girl was a volunteer for one of the local mayoral candidates, and her disappearance complicates an already heated campaign. When the nephew of one of the candidates, a Pleasantville local, is arrested, Jay reluctantly finds himself serving as a defense attorney. With a man’s life and his own reputation on the line, Jay is about to try his first murder in a case that will also put an electoral process on trial, exposing the dark side of power and those determined to keep it.

My Review:

black water rising by attica lockePleasantville was every bit as terrific as I expected it to be, and the story makes an excellent bookend to Jay Porter’s legal career. We saw it take off in Black Water Rising (reviewed here) and in Pleasantville we see what could be his swan song, or perhaps a new renaissance. Time will tell.

Jay’s own story seems to be a parable on the cliche that if it wasn’t for bad luck, he wouldn’t have any at all. He has an unfortunate knack for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and nearly getting himself killed extricating himself from the mess that he has accidentally landed in.

In this particular story, Jay also finds himself caught in the middle of a mess that could be described as “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely”, along with a cautionary tale about not getting in the way of someone who gets their jollies by being a very big fish in a very small pond.

I used to know someone who referred to some folks who fit that category as being a shark in a goldfish bowl. The problem that Jay discovers is that those type of sharks will do just about anything to maintain their sharkitude.

Pleasantville takes place in 1996, fifteen years after the end of Black Water Rising. During those intervening years, Jay’s career has risen and finally fallen. He’s gone from being in his 30s to pushing 50, and sometimes feeling 50 push back. In Black Water Rising, his wife Bernice was pregnant with their first child. In Pleasantville, he is a widower raising their two children alone, after Bernice’s death from cancer the previous year. His once burgeoning civil practice has sunk to one last case that he is afraid to go to court with – after the death of his wife, he has lost his own fire.

In the autumn of 1996 the country was about to elect Bill Clinton for his second term. In Houston, a historic mayoral race has come down to a runoff between the first black Houston police chief and the second woman to run a viable campaign for mayor. The politics are dirty and getting dirtier by the minute.

In the middle of the campaign, a young female campaign worker is murdered, and the pattern of the crime fits two other recent murders of young women in the Pleasantville neighborhood. The murder is tragic, but political considerations overtake the investigation of the crime.

Former police chief Axel Hathorne is from Pleasantville. His opponent, District Attorney Wollcott, decides to prosecute Axe’s nephew Neal for the crime, based on extremely flimsy evidence. As Neal is his uncle’s campaign manager, it looks a lot like a cheap stunt to tank Axe in the upcoming runoff election.

Jay takes Neal’s case. At first, simply because he is in the police station when Neal is brought in for questioning. A happenstance. The patriarch of the Hathorne family, Sam Hathorne, asks Jay to take the case for real when Neal is charged. Jay doesn’t trust Sam, doesn’t trust himself in a courtroom, but can’t manage to stop himself from taking up Neal’s case when it looks like he wasn’t just falsely accused, but falsely accused in order to finagle the outcome of the election.

But the case turns out to be much different than Jay imagined. Not because of the election angle, but because old Sam Hathorne, the unofficial mayor of Pleasantville, has committed many more and dirtier deals than anyone in his community imagined. He’s sacrificed everyone’s best interests in order to maintain his position as the shark in his particular goldfish bowl.

And Jay won’t let him get away with it any more than he’ll let the DA and her dirty tricks manager get away with pursuing a trumped up murder charge to steal an election.

Escape Rating A+: Pleasantville was even better than Black Water Rising. The story has just as many thrills and definitely chills, but the scope was larger and the chills further reaching. While Black Water Rising was about one man’s fight against corporate corruption, Pleasantville has a broader theme about the far reaching consequences of political corruption, and the short term memories of the electorate. It’s a story about the changing nature of one community, and how that change is reflected in the wider world.

The dirty tricks campaign against Alex Hathorne in Houston is intended as a precursor of the long-drawn-out fight that turned into the 2000 presidential election where our fate was decided in a courtroom. The manager of the dirty tricks in this Houston mayoral race moves on to bigger and better (or worse, depending on perspective) things as a manager of the Bush campaign in 2000. It’s easy to see a connection between this mayoral campaign and the Swift Boat deceptive advertising in the 2004 election.

But this story personalizes the political dirt by focusing on the bogus case against Neal Hathorne. Through the case of one young man who has an alibi for the time when the crime took place, we see how easy it is to obfuscate the facts in order to forward an agenda. The opponents didn’t need to convict him, they just needed to dirty his name for 30 days, long enough to win the election. That Jay is willing to do whatever it takes to thwart that ambition tells both him and the reader that he still has something left to live for, and still has something to give back to his community and his clients.

That he is unwilling to bury a difficult truth in order to keep the status quo in power shows that he is still an idealist after all. And those choices are what make him so fascinating to follow.

This post is part of a TLC book tour. Click on the logo for more reviews.
***FTC Disclaimer: Most books reviewed on this site have been provided free of charge by the publisher, author or publicist. Some books we have purchased with our own money or borrowed from a public library and will be noted as such. Any links to places to purchase books are provided as a convenience, and do not serve as an endorsement by this blog. All reviews are the true and honest opinion of the blogger reviewing the book. The method of acquiring the book does not have a bearing on the content of the review.

Review: Black Water Rising by Attica Locke

black water rising by attica lockeFormat read: ebook borrowed from the library
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genre: mystery suspense
Series: Jay Porter #1
Length: 448 pages
Publisher: Harper Collins
Date Released: June 9, 2009
Purchasing Info: Author’s Website, Publisher’s Website, Goodreads, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Book Depository

Writing in the tradition of Dennis Lehane and Greg Iles, Attica Locke, a powerful new voice in American fiction, delivers a brilliant debut thriller that readers will not soon forget.

Jay Porter is hardly the lawyer he set out to be. His most promising client is a low-rent call girl and he runs his fledgling law practice out of a dingy strip mall. But he’s long since made peace with not living the American Dream and carefully tucked away his darkest sins: the guns, the FBI file, the trial that nearly destroyed him.

Houston, Texas, 1981. It is here that Jay believes he can make a fresh start. That is, until the night in a boat out on the bayou when he impulsively saves a woman from drowning—and opens a Pandora’s box. Her secrets put Jay in danger, ensnaring him in a murder investigation that could cost him his practice, his family, and even his life. But before he can get to the bottom of a tangled mystery that reaches into the upper echelons of Houston’s corporate power brokers, Jay must confront the demons of his past.

With pacing that captures the reader from the first scene through an exhilarating climax, Black Water Rising marks the arrival of an electrifying new talent.

My Review:

It’s 1981 in Houston, Texas, and the black water that is inconveniently rising is something that is sometimes called “Texas Tea”. But no one is going to strike it rich this time, because this isn’t an oil well. This crude is rising somewhere that it isn’t supposed to be in the first place.

The story in Black Water Rising is edge-of-your-seat, thrill-a-minute scary, because that oil isn’t the first or the only thing that isn’t staying where it was put. And Jay Porter is right in the middle of the mess.

In Catch-22, Joseph Heller famously said that “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you.” That’s Jay Porter in a nutshell. He’s been paranoid all of his adult life, but he’s not just certain that they are out to get him, he knows it’s true because it happened before.

In college, in the tumultuous late 1960’s, Jay was a black activist who gave speeches and raised money for the cause that he believed in. Until one day he was betrayed by someone both close to him and inside the movement, and found himself on trial on a trumped up charge of murder. Although he was found not guilty by the grace of God and one black woman on the jury who would not give in, he never lost his sense of betrayal.

It’s 1981, and he finds himself in the middle of something that he shouldn’t have had any part of. He was in the wrong place at the right time. Or the other way around.

He takes his wife on a very cheap anniversary cruise on what had been proposed as a Riverwalk through Houston to rival San Antonio. It’s a concrete ditch leading to the bayous, but someone owes him and he needs to do something special for his anniversary. His wife is 8 months pregnant and he needs to treat her to something nice.

This wasn’t it.

On the way back, they hear a scream. He rescues a white woman from the shoreline – she’s frightened and bruised. He knows that there is no way that a white woman should have been in that part of town, and the gunshots they heard just before she started screaming make him certain that this is trouble with a capital T.

He’s right. He knows that there is no good that can come of a black man rescuing a white woman. Even with witnesses, it can only turn out badly for him. He just doesn’t know how right he is. And how wrong.

It’s not because of the event itself. Because of Jay’s long-simmering certainty that someday the government will get him, just the way it has so many of the others he was involved with in the 1960s. He’s innocent of any wrongdoing now, but he is certain that the police won’t see it that way.

So Jay covers up his involvement, only to eventually discover that someone is using him to cover up something deeper and darker. His paranoia, justified as it is, nearly gets both him and his wife Bernice killed.

In the end, it both saves him and sets him free.

Escape Rating A: The depths of Jay Porter’s fear, and exactly how ingrained it is and how utterly reasonable it is has been reinforced for this reader by recent deaths of black men in Baltimore, New York, Ferguson, Florida and too many other places to list. Which is just wrong.

So Jay doesn’t trust the police, because he knows from his own experience that they are not trustworthy. He is a black man with a felony arrest record, and even though he was found not guilty of the fabricated charge, he is certain that he will be beaten first and asked questions later, if at all. It happens all the time, and he knows it.

The events in the book bear this out, as a white union organizer beats up an unarmend young black union member, and is not merely let go, but his fake alibi is corroborated by one of the city’s most influential oil men. And it is all in the service of killing a union movement by black dockworkers to get equal pay for equal work.

Meanwhile, the woman that Jay rescued has finally been charged with murder, but the fix is in. The question in the story is about who is fixed. Whether it’s Jay, involved by accident in a mess that is none of his making; Elise, the young woman who killed a man in self-defense, or the influential businessman who contracted the hit, but is now paying for her legal defense.

Jay conducts his own investigation into the original crime. At first, he’s just trying to discover whether his inadvertent role has been revealed to the police. It becomes a race to see if he can uncover and reveal the depth of the coverup before his own body becomes part of the collateral damange.

Ironically, it takes a long time for Jay to finally figure out what this is all really about. Because it’s not about the murder, not really. It’s about a lot of big corporations and big unions manipulating everybody in Houston, and the U.S.

Jay initially only cares that they are manipulating him, using his long-standing fears to keep him in line. When that stops working, they threaten his family and his life, and they try to make him complicit in a crime that he still hasn’t discovered the depths of.

Jay carries the story along with his guilt and innocence, on his back the entire length of the book. It is so easy to see that doing the right thing in the beginning would have saved him so much grief. At the same time, the author makes is easy to understand what motivates Jay to hide as much as he can for as long as he can.

He’s a complete mess, and his fears threaten to wreck his entire life. But the author makes those fears real, and we understand how it all falls into place, and nearly into pieces.

Black Water Rising is a compelling story of betrayal and corruption. It is also a story that it is impossible not to keep thinking about. It won’t let me go.

***FTC Disclaimer: Most books reviewed on this site have been provided free of charge by the publisher, author or publicist. Some books we have purchased with our own money or borrowed from a public library and will be noted as such. Any links to places to purchase books are provided as a convenience, and do not serve as an endorsement by this blog. All reviews are the true and honest opinion of the blogger reviewing the book. The method of acquiring the book does not have a bearing on the content of the review.