Book Review: Women of Mystery
Investigating the latest "persons of interest" in Texas' literary crime scene
Reviewed by Molly Odintz, Fri., Feb. 26, 2016
Pleasantvilleby Attica Locke
Harper, 432 pp., $26.99
Attica Locke's twisting, stylish, and complex follow-up to her debut, Black Water Rising, takes up the tale of Houston lawyer and activist Jay Porter decades later, in the mid-Nineties. As the novel opens, Porter has stalled in his efforts to secure a settlement for the residents of the prosperous, historically African-American neighborhood of Pleasantville in their long fight against a chemical company responsible for as many health problems in the area as jobs. Reeling from the recent loss of his wife, Porter struggles to care for his children as his clients look to him to continue his fight against the corporation in court.
Meanwhile, in Pleasantville, election season is ramping up, and the neighborhood's born-and-raised candidate Neal Hawthorne, a prominent African-American former police chief and son of a powerful local politician, faces a strong challenge from a more conservative, establishment candidate. When a young campaign worker goes missing, police suspect Hawthorne's nephew while the opposition capitalizes on the scandal. To save the election, Porter takes on the young man's case and does some sleuthing of his own.
Locke knows how to write high drama and dirty politics. She has created a frighteningly realistic tale of chemical pollution and government corruption, yet provides reason and bestows sympathy on even the most monstrous of characters. She also knows how to write about loss – yearning, stumbling, heartbreaking loss, conveyed in few words and deep emotion.
As this intense political thriller proves, Locke also knows how to craft a fiendishly intricate detective novel. I cannot stress enough how insanely good this book is – as genre fiction, as social criticism, and as literature. Locke currently writes for the hit TV show Empire, which, like her prior work, combines Shakespearean tragedy, Machiavellian politics, and the human, faltering touches that bring characters to life, in all their power, indignity, and heroism.