Fans of contemporary American fiction may notice a familiar name popping up as the credits roll on episodes of the hit TV series, Empire. Attica Locke is one of the co-producers on this gripping drama about a hip hop mogul and his dysfunctional family.
The Houston-born screenwriter published her first novel in 2009, the Orange prize-shortlisted Black Water Rising. Set in 1981 in Ronald Reagan’s America, it introduced a memorable protagonist, Jay Porter, an underachieving Houston lawyer and former Black Power activist who becomes entangled in a complex web involving a murder, the oil industry, race relations and internecine local politics.
Locke followed up with The Cutting Season (2012), a thriller set on a former slave plantation, but her third novel, Pleasantville, takes us back to Houston and picks up Jay’s life. It is now 1996 and the young married man with a pregnant wife in Black Water Rising is a widower trying to keep his law practice afloat while raising two children. Still raw from his wife Bernie’s death, Jay is secretly “through practicing law” but hasn’t told anyone else — and has one last big case outstanding, a class action against one of the chemical companies whose factories have blighted the lives and health of residents of Pleasantville, an affluent (and real-life) African-American district of Houston.
Local politics and a murder mystery, the ingredients of Black Water Rising, are again present in Pleasantville. A young woman, Alicia Nowell, goes missing in the suburb; she has apparently been snatched off the street while working as a volunteer campaigner for local grandee Axel Hathorne — a former police chief from one of Pleasantville’s founding families, now hoping to become Houston’s first black mayor.
While investigating a break-in at his office, and the possible defection of his class action clients to another attorney, Jay becomes inextricably involved with the Hathorne family and other local political players. He has to defend his first murder case when Axel’s nephew Neal, the campaign’s manager, is accused of killing Alicia.
To complicate things further, Axel’s opponent in the mayoral run-off is Sandy Wolcott, the city’s district attorney. It is a seriously messy set-up. And as Jay thinks to himself, it is “hard not to see the situation the way Neal does, as a political stunt”.
There’s a dizzying amount to keep up with: legal cases old and new, violence, intimidation, family feuds, long-lost brothers — and, at the heart of it all, politics. Locke doesn’t give the reader time to reflect, spinning us off into side alleys, blind alleys and dive bars on the edge of town. Her screenwriting creds pay off — this is a cinematic, panoramic view of African-American life, but it is also a sharp, tender account of Jay’s inner struggle. Having been beaten up by a hired thug, Jay returns home to examine his bruises: “What, after all, was a scratch on the surface of a body that had already been hollowed out? He looked at his hands, at his shirtless torso, in the bathroom mirror. He saw his whole body anew, imagining grief, of all things, as a kind of superpower.”
Locke brings a lifetime of experience to her writing about politics: her father was a civil rights campaigner and attorney who came second in Houston’s 2009 mayoral election. This is a story of local politics in a Texan city 20 years ago — yet her depiction of this world of behind-closed-curtains deals and whispered conversations is unputdownable.
The local becomes universal in the bigger points that Locke is making. The black community in Houston is in flux because real power in City Hall is within touching distance. People are making money. And betrayal is never far away. Pleasantville is changing, as some of the residents move out. “Young black folks with a little change in their pockets [are] picking neighborhoods that would have been closed to them a couple of decades ago,” says Rob Urrea, a Latino-American journalist. “People like me are moving in.”
After all this, the unravelling of the murder mystery is almost an afterthought. The identity of the killer does come as a surprise, but we don’t linger. Locke gives us bigger reasons to read on. As she said in an interview with the LA Times recently: “My hope for my books, or for a show like Empire, is that people will see [these characters] and see a son, a brother, a friend.”
She does that, brilliantly. Even better, the book ends with a short coda catching up with Jay in 2000 when the “polls have just opened, and the Bush-Gore race is anybody’s guess”. That timeline leaves Locke plenty of scope to return to what happens next.
Pleasantville, by Attica Locke, Serpent’s Tail, RRP£14.99, Harper, RRP$26.99, 432 pages