by Attica Locke
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
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 neighbourhood 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 defence 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.
Houston 1996, a mayoral election campaign focused on Pleasantville, a small African-American neighbourhood known for its swing vote. The son of the district's founding father was all set to become Houston's first black mayor but former chief of police Axel Hathorne's lead was slipping. The campaign intensified after Sandy Wolcott entered the race. The white woman, a defence attorney riding high after a much-publicised murder trial, was gaining points.
A missing girl, apparently disapearing while canvassing for Axel (she was last seen wearing one of his team’s blue shirts) provided costly. Who did she last call? And who was she last seen with? Key questions that provided damaging answers after her body was found as Axel's nephew was charged with the teenager’s murder.
So that's the set up. Then respected lawyer Jay Porter takes the case of defending the accused and becomes embroiled in a dangerous political world in this fine work that ticks genre boxes that include legal thriller, political thriller and murder mystery.
Porter makes a fine lead: a complex, troubled character with many admirable qualities, including his efforts to manage parenthood with work, which also involves a chemical-fire class action suit against a company that know they have to pay up but have been stalling, hoping to do a cut price deal with a new rival lawyer.
Legal and political skulduggery aside it works well as a crime novel, as Porter and his investigators/contacts walk the line of the detective or PI. Two earlier unsolved murders add further cause to investigate leads missed or undeveloped previously by the police. Suspects that each have their own history.
The period at which this is all set is a fine choice, adding depth to the story. Aware of what follows politically at a national level (with Clinton and then the George W. years) adds a knowing, bitter-sweet element. The presence of a ruthless spin doctor/election consultant more than hints at the tactics later used by the Bush campaign. I suspect we’ll hear more of Porter in future books, perhaps with the Obama campaign being the next backdrop.
Intrigue, family secrets, threats, violence and dramatic courtroom action. What more could you want?
About Attica Locke:
A graduate of Northwestern University, Locke was a fellow at the Sundance Institute’s Feature Filmmakers Lab. Attica Locke has written scripts for Paramount, Warner Bros, Disney, Twentieth Century Fox, Jerry Bruckheimer Films, and HBO, and is a writer and producer of the Fox drama, Empire.
A native of Houston, Texas, Attica lives in Los Angeles, California, with her husband and daughter.