One of the highlights of my summer was listening to the audiobooks Black Water Rising and Pleasantville by Attica Locke. This list from Bookriot turned me on to these books, and I recognized the author’s name as being one of the writers from the show Empire. Once I read the synopses on Goodreads, I knew I had to check these books out, and from the moment I loaded the first disc of Black Water Rising into my car’s CD changer, I was hooked. Here’s why:
Unconventional hero whose external conflicts are matched by deep psychological conflict.
The protagonist in these legal thrillers, Jay Porter, is not the typical driven, unattached, emotionally walled-off hero. He’s a family man with a regular working person’s needs and desires that are complicated by the aftermath of traumatic events from his idealistic college days.
“His dreams are simple now. Home, his wife, his baby. He watches Bernadine, moving to the music, wiping sweat from her brow, pasting stray black hairs against her bronze skin. Jay stands perfectly still, lost in the sway of his wife’s hips. Right, then left, then right again. He smiles and leans over the cooler for a second beer, feeling the boat moving beneath his feet.”
“He’s not proud of his fears, but there they are, pinching at him from all sides like too tight shoes, restricting his movements, limiting his freedom. A shame, considering the real reason he marched so many years ago was to prove fear was dead, that it belonged to another time, to men like his father.”
Fun, multi-dimensional characters and evocative descriptions
“Eddie Mae pokes her head onto Jay’s office, where he’s been working since seven o’ clock this morning. She leans against the door frame, kicking at a piece of carpet that’s coming up on the floor, holding a stack of pink message slips. Her wig is red today. Which means she’s in a bad mood. Or a drinking mood. Or she’s got a date to play dominoes after work.”
Locke’s writing style at times evokes a call and response rhythm that made me nod my head and murmur, “Mm-hmm. That’s right.”
“They ride in silence, the stranger in the back and Bernie in the front passenger seat. Jay keeps the Buick Skylark at an even thirty-five miles an hour, careful not to draw any undue attention. He’s keenly aware of the irony, his fear of being stopped by cops on his way to a police station.”
Then Locke will switch from harrowing to humorous with a scene change:
“Monday morning, the hooker shows up wearing a neck brace.”
It’s also an illustration of the sorry state of Jay’s legal practice that the hooker is his best client.
In Pleasantville, the just as good if not better sequel, the subject matter is darker but the brand of humor still holds.
“Jay holds up a finger, not the one he wants to, mind you, but a single index finger to indicate he needs to answer this ringing telephone.”
“He had talked his way into the house using one of the oldest cons in the book. Lucifer himself probably showed up to Jesus’s house at least once or twice, claiming to have the twenty dollars he owed him.”
We see how the hero has been transformed by the events of the first book.
In the first book Jay owns three guns and is loathe to ever go to the police if he can avoid it. In the second book, things have changed:
“Jay, who didn’t keeps guns in his home anymore, not since the kids, had a single registered firearm, and it was right now sitting useless inside a locked box in the bottom drawer of his office desk. Hence his patient vigil across the street, waiting for the cops.”
Return of beloved characters such as former Houston Post reporter Lon Philips:
“By the time security started ushering folks out of the building, Lon was already a mile up the Southwest Freeway.”
and Private Investigator/car rental agency owner Rolly Snow:
“. . . Rolly keeps tapping at the pack of cigarettes in the front pocket of his shirt, stopping himself each time he realizes he’s doing it, trying his best to show his utter respect for a man who won’t smoke in front of his kids. He doesn’t light up around Jay anymore, except for marijuana, which he claims doesn’t count.”
I highly recommend these books. I just picked up the hard copies and in skimming them looking for quotes for this post, I found myself trying to re-read them again. These books are set in the early eighties and late nineties, respectively, yet the themes and issues they explore are eerily relevant to today, such as driving while black and the evolution of the civil rights movement. If you like smart legal thrillers with psychological and emotional weight, plot twists that can be crazy and hilarious at the same time, exceptional writing that draws you in, and characters that you remember for days, pick up Black Water Rising and Pleasantville.
Clip from Empire “Our Dancing Days” episode, written by Attica Locke.
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