What would you do if you were taking a night cruise on the Buffalo Bayou in Houston, Texas and you heard a woman screaming for help followed by two gunshots? It’s a real-life dilemma that confronted the author’s father when she was a child. She was on the boat at the time and the incident is one that has never been forgotten. It is the premise of her debut novel.
Jay Porter and his fellow cruisees debate with each other as to what they should do. His pregnant wife, Bernadine, advises to leave well alone – the woman is trouble whichever way you look at it. But when the woman falls into the bayou, Jay dives in to save her. Bernice’s words were well spoken. Trouble surely ensues.
Murder, politics, big business, class, race and contract killings combine to produce a thrilling read. Jay, a black lawyer with a love for fair play, just cannot leave it alone. Preoccupations, grudges and paranoias from his militant past, which at one point unjustly landed him in jail, spur him to do what is, in his eyes, the right thing. How sound, though, is his judgement?
While Jay’s crusade is the main plot, the threat of the dockworkers’ strike in 1981 add a complimentary layer as Jay is asked to represent a young black boy who has been savagely beaten by white coworkers. This brings him into contact with the white mayor, Cynthia Maddox, an old flame, who still ignites a spark. Introducing a frisson of illicit feeling, Cynthia also allows Locke to explore the politics of the time, the deceptions and betrayals of the black militant past. And unless you’re aware of the history of the time, you will never guess what’s really going on.
Besides being a cracking read – Attica Locke is a screenwriter and it shows – this was an education to me. The only flaws that I can mention, and I do so because of its Orange longlisting and a shortlist must be chosen somehow, is a tendency to repetition, particularly with regard to Jay Porter’s thoughts and motivations and an author’s eye that is at times too focused on the big screen (the menacing contract killer and a car chase). Apart from that, I was mighty impressed with her control of the psychologies of her characters (they are always authentic) and the suspense which she rachetts up to an ending which leaves me worrying more than ever. I hope there is a sequel on its way. I need to know what happens!