PleasantvilleContemporary politics might not be particularly edifying to live through, but that constant whiff of corruption and bad faith that seems to hang around the corridors of power these days, the pervasive belief, fostered by the media, that politicians will do anything to get their way, makes for some pretty compelling fiction. Attica Locke, whose last novel, The Cutting Season, I loved for its willingness to dig down deep into the issues of race relations (the way Eva Dolan digs relentlessly into issues of immigration) has brought her novelist’s gaze to bear on these two themes, in a story about race and politics set in 1996 that subtly prefigures Obama’s entry into the White House.

Houston, Texas, in the final stages of its mayoral race has come down to a run-off between two candidates: Axel Hathorne, an African-American former Chief of Police and Sandy Wolcott, the current states attorney. Crucial to the competition is the district of Pleasantville, a black community founded in the civil rights era that has learned how to consolidate the black vote and can swing a closely run poll. On paper it looks as if Axel ought to be way out in front, but when a young woman goes missing, last seen wearing the blue t-shirt of his campaign volunteers, public opinion starts to shift against him. And then when his campaign manager and nephew, Neal, is charged with her murder, the timing is so bad and the evidence so weak that the most outrageous smear by the other side is suspected. But is it political suicide to say so?

More or less coerced into helping the Hathorne family is Jay Porter, the small town lawyer who featured in Attica Locke’s first novel, Black Water Rising (which I haven’t read and it didn’t seem to matter). Jay is unwilling to take on the case; he is still coming to terms with the recent death of his wife and his difficulties in parenting their two teenage children, Ellie and Ben. For a year he has been treading water and can scarcely bear the thought of entering a courtroom again. Plus, he has more than enough work to deal with, as he is still chasing the money promised his clients by Cole Oil, a petrochemical firm whose thoughtless practices were causing dangerous pollution. The $56 million that the firm is still finding ways to avoid paying out is causing his clients to lose faith in him and to seek other lawyers. It’s this issue which the Hathorne family’s patriarch, Sam, manages to hold against him until he agrees to help with the murder case.

What I especially like about Attica Locke’s novels is how real they are. Pleasantville actually exists, a community based on political activism who ‘endured the worst of Jim Crow, backs of buses and separate toilets; and yes, they paid their taxes, driving or walking for miles each Election Day, waiting in lines two and three hours long. Yes, they waited. But they also marched… holding out the collective votes of a brand-new bloc as a bargaining chip to politicians previously reluctant to consider the needs of the new Negro middle class’. And Jay Porter is such a plausible protagonist. When we first meet him, he is waiting for the police outside his broken-into offices, strenuously avoiding any act of derring-do. ‘There was nothing in that office that he couldn’t live without, not a thing in the world he would put before the need to get back home to his family in one piece. He wasn’t trying to be a hero.’ Some have heroics thrust upon them, however, and inevitably as the mayoral fight gets dirtier and the investigation into the murder comes closer to its perpetrators, it’s Jay’s family that gets put on the line.

This is a twisty, complex legal thriller, reminiscent in some ways of John Grisham, but a great deal more serious and literary. It’s crime fiction for grown-ups, if you like, the sort of novel that is definitely going to inform and enlighten you while it takes you on a tense quest for a killer. Occasionally, I thought Locke risked burying her action with her beautiful prose, but she is such a talented writer the story manages to be compelling throughout. I was also glad to have been educated by The Good Wife about American politics, as I felt I got more from the book because I knew something about state’s attorneys and campaign managers and the general atmosphere in which politics is conducted. But that being said, you could pick this book up in all ignorance and still enjoy it. At the end of the day, there’s a murderer to catch and a two-person race for a high ranking job between teams of politicos whose ambition risks outweighing their ethics. When you get to the final section of the novel, set in the courtroom, there’s a terrific momentum carrying the reader along. Attica Locke is definitely a subtle, clever and insightful writer to watch.


27 thoughts on “Pleasantville

  1. Sounds like you enjoyed this one as much as I did. I too find her to be the ‘John Grisham for grown-ups’, with more subtlety, thoughtfulness and beautiful prose. She has a knack for that succinct, great observation of a place or a person that will really resonate with the reader, even one unfamiliar with Texas or American politics.

    • I completely agree – I remember your review, it encouraged me before I’d picked this book up! But I was pretty sure that it was going to be good, having loved The Cutting Season.

  2. I’m just thrilled to hear this is so good. I think you’d enjoy Black Water Rising if you get to it, as well.

  3. I really must give her books a try–I have looked at them so many times and planned on reading one–sometimes when fiction is too real or too contemporary I have a hard time with it (which I realize probably sounds strange)–I think I rely too much on a book’s promise of escapism and I am not sure I will get that in a book like this (at least in a way I tend to pick up books to read these days). She is on my list, though!

    • I think you’d find her actually very accessible. If you fancy giving her a try, read The Cutting Season, which is just a very well-written piece of crime fiction. I’m pretty sure you’d enjoy it!

    • I’ve only ever read one John Grisham, and I probably got the wrong one as I gave it up halfway through. But Attica Locke I love – I’m sure you’d like her, Annabel. Though I would probably say start with The Cutting Season of all of her novels, because it’s really well done and clever.

  4. This one’s already on my list having enjoyed Black Water Rising but I think I’ll have to push it further to the top now. I’m glad I’m not the only one to get my American politics education from TV. My sources are The West Wing for national and The Wire for local.

    • Mr Litlove is currently watching the first season of The West Wing (that first season looks quite dated – I’m presuming it picks up as it goes along?). But I completely agree that TV is fab for getting across the complexity of American politics and all the different interests that conflict within it. I am sure you would enjoy this novel – and would love to know what you think about it.

      • It’s on my list! The West Wing is a little soapy but the final series is astonishingly prescient – we watched it immediately after the first Obama win. Well worth seeing.

  5. Like Annabel, I’ve seen Attica Locke’s name around quite a lot lately (possibly through reviews of Black Water Rising) but never read her. It does sound as if this one is grounded in a real sense of authenticity, ripe for a film or TV adaptation too.

    • Yes, you’re quite right – it’s the authenticity of her writing that makes her so readable, I think. I’d certainly watch it if it was adapted for television (and I’m almost at the end of The Good Wife and wondering what I will watch next!).

  6. I came to grief with ‘Black Water Rising’ and consequently haven’t been back to Locke, even though I know she is held in high regard. Your comment about the action getting lost in the prose interested me because I think that was part of my problem with the earlier book, so I’m not certain whether or not I will try this. I shall sleep on it!

    • It would probably be better to try The Cutting Season, if you did want to risk her again. That book was plotted like it was on rails, and was a very satisfying piece of crime fiction. Not that this isn’t, but it has all sorts of other agendas going on, which may well get in the way for you.

  7. I really liked The Cutting Season, and was less thrilled overall with Black Water Rising — I liked it, and I thought the racial stuff was fantastic, and not the kind of thing my fiction has enough of. I’ve been leery of reading this since I wasn’t looking for a sequel to Black Water Rising, particularly. But it sounds like it didn’t feel terribly sequel-y to you?

    • It didn’t feel at all sequel-y to me, but then I haven’t read Black Water Rising so it’s possible I just wouldn’t be able to read that dimension of the novel. I certainly read her myself for the brilliant portrayal of race relations, and that is still very good in this novel (though so bound up with politics that I think I got less out of it than I did with The Cutting Season). One to flick through when you’re in the bookshop next, perhaps, to test it out for yourself if you can.

  8. I’ve got her first novel after reading your review and really want to get to it. John Grisham isn’t a writer for me but someone who uses some of the ingredients he uses, only in a more literary way – that sounds very good.

    • I think you’d find her portrait of race relations very interesting. It adds such a profound dimension to her storytelling. I have only read one Grisham and didn’t much like it, if that helps to know!

  9. Sounds like a fun page turner with substance. Are those rare finds or is it just me? I am going to need an airplane book for later in the summer so I will keep this one in mind!

  10. That looks good – I always like to read a thriller that feels *real*. So many strike me as contrived, yet I am sure there are so many RL political situations out there that would easily lend themselves.

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