Attica Locke was nominated twice for the Bailey’s (previously Orange) Prize for Fiction. As creativity appears to be a key element in the history of the prize I am not surprised two detectives, literary detectives to be more precise, have made it to the shortlist (2010) and longlist (2016). My main issue with both novels: I’ve read better detectives. In both novels murders are committed and solved, in both novels lawyer Jay Porter is involved. What sets the novels apart from ordinary crime novels is the way Locke depicts the African-American society in which both murders take place. In Black Water Rising it is the African-American community in Houston, Texas in the seventies, that no longer has to face legal segregation. It has started to come up for its rights and to proclaim to be proud to be ‘black’. It is also the time in which Porter is rightfully scared of ‘the powers that be’. Many of his fellow college graduates, like him fighting for the ‘black’cause in the sixties, have ended up in jail on farfetched charges. CIA and FBI turn out to remember long and well. It explains Porters reluctance to go and tell about a murder he heard commit. He was once framed and almost sentenced for a crime he did not commit, he is scared to death CIA, FBI or police will finally find a reason to put him behind bars. To no avail: he gets sucked into the case. In Pleasantville we have moved some 15 years on. The close African-American society of Pleasantville has started to fall apart. Even the possible election of the first African-American mayor coming from theirs midst does not prevent Pleasantville from drifting apart. Times have definitely changed. The wealthier inhabitants of Pleasantville have left and moved to more well-to-do areas, poor Americans from different communities are drifting in. And are not exactly welcomed with open arms. Pleasantville has literally been surrounded by freeways and chemical factories. Many inhabitants are counting on Jay Porter to sue one of those chemical giants and win them a lot of money in settlements. When the nephew of the African-American candidate is charged with murder, Porter decides to defend him. Once more he faces a web of intrigue and opposing interests, while still having to cope with the recent death of his wife.
In both novels the murders are solved thanks to Jay Porter. In both novels the changes in African-American society are what makes them stand out from ‘plain’ crime novels.
Locke depicts the sense of unity in the community, she also shows the long-lasting effects of racial discrimination on such a community, causing discrimination of other communities in its stride. Locke does not hide that the injustices from the past are leading to new injustices. Black Water Rising en Pleasantville are definitely not the best detectives I’ve ever read. They do make me wonder what’ll be the outcome if Locke lets the murders be and just concentrates on writing novels that focus on people and their communities.