Book Quote:

“Money, it turns out, is the new Jim Crow.”

Book Review:

Review by Doug Bruns (SEP 4, 2009)

I offer the above quote, a pithy economic assessment of race, not because I find it particularly compelling, though I think it is; nor because it summarizes the plot of this novel; it does not. Rather, it’s there because this novel reads surprisingly like a well-argued survey of American race relations in the 1980s–that it also happens to be a page-turning noir thriller is all the better. Rest assured, this is a book of intrigue first. In fact, Attica Locke said in a recent interview that she set out to write a “slick little thriller,” but was lead by her unconscious to the “soul” of the book, a look at America twenty years after the civil rights movement.

It was not what she expected to do, but what would you expect from a woman named after the 1971 prison uprising? Make no mistake, this is a first rate thriller. But if mystery is the painting, race is the canvas upon which it has been brushed; for it, race, is always part of the background. Take, for instance, this small exchange between Jay Porter, the protagonist lawyer, and an old friend: “‘Jay Porter,’ Kwame says, drawing out the name, eyeing Jay’s suit and his close-cropped hair. He lets out a slow, catlike grin, his teeth white and unnaturally large. ‘White man still got you, huh, bro, one way or another.’” This current flows deep and brings a subtile perspective to the work. Without it, if it had been the singular thriller she intended, the book would have been a simple–and lesser–entertainment.

One of the characteristics of noir literature is cynicism. In Black Water Rising, Jay Porter, our central character, a lawyer, is a child of the Sixties. It is now 1981 and he spends a lot of time thinking, being cyncial, about the civil rights movement, of which he actively participated, including working for and with Stokely Carmichael. His activism garnered him a thick FBI file and a Federal conviction. It is interesting that Attica Locke’s father, Gene, was an activist in the 60’s and, for a while, an associate of Stokely Carmichael.

Here’s the premise. Jay, while celebrating his pregnant wife’s birthday with a sunset bayou cruise, rescues a woman from the dark waters of Houston Bay after hearing a scream and gun shots. He delivers her to the steps of the police station, but drives off, never sure if she actually entered. He is fearful, a black man, handing over a drenched and panicky white woman late at night. His paranoia is manifested throughout the novel. We learn early on that he keeps three guns handy, including, to his wife’s dismay, a 22 gauge pistol under his pillow. In the days following the bayou event, his life unravels as two murders are discovered, the mayor’s office–the mayor, a white woman and long-ago lover–is pulled into the fray, a union strike is called, Big Oil comes into play and along with it the power of big money. Family tensions rise and many a late night car is followed.

The essence of a thriller is the resolution of the mystery. Usually a private detective fills the roll. Who better to chase down leads and run into dark alleys, then a PI? Jay seems more detective than lawyer, frankly, but the switch-up still works. And the requisite life failings of the noir hero? He qualifies here too. His biggest client is a high-end call girl trying to sue for damages from a client-related automobile accident. He works in a dingy office walkup and his secretary is hardly capable of answering the phone, but sports the requisite bouffant.

Halfway through this book I started thinking about the goal of the mystery thriller. It should entertain, and entertain at a quickening pace, preferably picking up speed as the story unwinds, bringing the reader to a breathless sprint by the end. The noir thriller should also usher success upon the troubled protagonist in spite of himself. I say in spite of himself because the typical noir thriller protagonist is a lone-wolf. He doesn’t play well with others, and prefers to live outside the boundaries of society. Our guy, Jay Porter, has married the Reverend’s daughter and the father-in-law, against his unsuccessful resistance, continually pulls Jay back into the mainstream of things, a union strike, in particular. I found myself rushing to the end, anticipating Jay’s success but never sure the fashion in which it would be delivered. And throughout all that, there is the theme of a race, of a man who happens to be black trying, in the deep south, to do the right thing, while struggling against a forceful color-coded tide. The story is compelling on all counts.

AMAZON READER RATING: from 80 readers
PUBLISHER: Harper; First Edition (June 9, 2009)
REVIEWER: Doug Bruns


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September 4, 2009 · Judi Clark · Comments Closed
Tags: , ,  · Posted in: Class - Race - Gender, Debut Novel, Facing History, Mystery/Suspense, Noir, Texas