Why is Attica Locke’s mystery novel Blackwater Rising set in 1981? So that the protagonist, Jay Porter, can have a backstory of teenage involvement in the Black Power movement of the late 60s and early 70s. The author uses the tension associated with southern race relations to build urgency in her novel. On her website, she explains how her family history strongly influenced her writing process.
However, I had a hard time knowing what to make of this mystery, which is one of six up for the Mystery Writers of America Edgar for Best First Novel by an American Author.
It’s certainly an American story. Jay Porter grows up in the smart and poor in Texas, and at the age of 19, finds himself drawn to the more assertive branches of the civil rights movement, egged on by an even-more-involved white girl who disappears after Jay’s arrest and trial. Much is made of the second chance he receives when found not guilty, and he vows to stay out of trouble. Flash forward to 1981, when Jay is a down-at-his-heels lawyer with offices in a strip mall and clients that include ladies for hire. Big coincidence – his old girlfriend is now mayor, playing both sides of the fence at every opportunity. Add in black-white tensions related to union integration, an elderly nutcase who’s the lone holdout when an oil company shell is buying up all the houses in a particular area (where black sludge is rising to the surface), and a birthday cruise that is interrupted when Jay and his pregnant wife rescue a woman from a murderer.
The book’s been criticized in a review by the Washington Post for being murky and having poorly drawn characters, among other failings. Other reviews blurbed on Locke’s website are fawning (or carefully edited). My own perspective is somewhere in between. Jay Porter is very well-nuanced, his perspective is well-defined, and although the reader may wish at times to grab him by the shoulders and shake him for being such an idiot, he’s compelling and believable. Other characters are more two-dimensional (although we imagine Locke sees the “did she or didn’t she” betrayal by Mayor Cynthia as adding complexity to her character) and Jay’s wife Bernie is practically a Japanese body-pillow girlfriend.
Plot-wise, Blackwater Rising suffers from a typical first novel problem – too many plot threads that all, conveniently, relate to one another and too many interwoven characters. Locke has enough fodder in this book for several books. And although Porter doesn’t succeed in his goal of exposing evil, in the last pages of Blackwater Rising, he has taken on the lone nutcase as a client in a civil suit. (Can you see the second book in the series on the horizon?)
That being said, it’s still better than The Weight of Silence, so Blackwater Rising ranks #3 and Gudenkauf’s book falls to #4 on the Literary Lunchbox Edgars for Best First Novel by an American Author.
- Starvation Lake – Bryan Gruley
- A Bad Day for Sorry – Sophie Littlefield
- Blackwater Rising – Attica Locke
- The Weight of Silence – Heather Gudenkauf
Still to read: In the Shadow of Gotham (on my bedside table) and The Girl She Used to Be (I’m #1 on the library hold list).