Pleasantville by Attica Locke

3 Mins read

We’ve come to expect politics to play a part in Attica Locke’s intelligent thrillers. The author was one of our Women to Watch in 2013 and Pleasantville is her third book, set in the midst of a hard-fought election in 1996 in Houston, Texas. It’s even more political in its content than her previous books, The Cutting Season and Black Water Rising. However, it starts with a familiar crime fiction trope: a young girl walks home alone at night and meets her untimely end.

The girl in question is Alicia Nowell and she may have been a volunteer for one of the local politicians. Neal Hathorne, the nephew of the first black candidate for the mayor’s office, is questioned by the police about the murder so his family turn to defense attorney Jay Porter. If you read Black Water Rising, you’ll recall Jay as the idealistic young lawyer who saved a woman from drowning and thereby nearly wrecked his career, family and life. Although there are many references to that book, you don’t need to have read it to appreciate this one.

Now, 15 years have passed and Jay is more bruised, and more cautious. His big win against Cole Oil brought him fame but little satisfaction. His wife has recently died, something he is still struggling to come to terms with, and he is perhaps a little overprotective of his two children. He has to all intents and purposes closed down his practice, with only one lawsuit on his books. A chemical plant is leaking toxic waste into the area known as Pleasantville, but the lawsuit has been dragging on for nearly two years and people living there are yet to see any compensation. Above all, he is disillusioned, haunted by fears, and has avoided the courtroom for many years.

Jay believes he is the wrong person to defend Neal, but finds it hard to refuse the charismatic and forceful Sam Hathorne, grandfather of the accused and the unofficial leader of Pleasantville. The painful loss of the Nowell family becomes political ammunition, but would the other candidates go so far as to frame their opponent for murder? Why doesn’t anyone make the link between this dead girl and two previous cases? What is the link between this criminal case and the files that have gone missing following a break-in at Jay’s office? With the help of unemployed journalist Lonnie and a PI called Rolly, Jay tries to piece together the truth about the girl’s murder.

This is a complex tale, which requires some knowledge of American local politics to fully appreciate all the nuances. There are many narrative threads and characters to keep track of, with several courtroom scenes for those who enjoy a legal drama. Although it is complex, you won’t feel as though the author is talking down to you. The language is unique too. Locke uses bushy sentences and sing-song structures stemming from the oral traditions of African-Americans. She has a great talent for capturing the essence of a place or a person in just a few words, such as this description of a Texas bar: “It’s a place where the smoking of meat is holy, and cleanliness is next to whatever comes way after beer and football, a place where men and dogs are welcome.” This is John Grisham with heart and bite, and far greater levels of sophistication.

The real hero of the novel is Pleasantville itself – the rather ironically named all-black neighbourhood created back in the late 1940s. It used to be a pleasant area, although it was segregated. It had real community spirit, but now it’s a fading grand dame with obsolete ideals, being taken over by Hispanics, poor whites and materialism. The book is also an elegy for a lost way of relating to one’s neighbours, of grassroots activism and political idealism. We are meant to feel indignant that the real suffering of families who have lost their daughters is being used for political gain, but the truth is that since 1996 this kind of thing has become a normal part of America’s political dialogue. Personal and national tragedies are pretexts for politicians to make speeches and accuse the other side of negligence. The murder investigation is eventually wrapped up quite neatly, but Jay and the author do not seem optimistic about the long-term prospects for places like Pleasantville.

Pleasantville is released 16 April as a hardback. The Kindle version follows on 1 July. For more legal thrillers, click here.

Serpent’s Tail

CFL Rating: 5 Stars

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