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Pleasantville, by Attica Locke. Harper, Hardcover, 432 pages.

February 23, 2015

I originally read a pre-publication version of this book, but I was asked to hold my review until closer to its publication date.  So finally here it is.

Pleasantville, by Attica Locke.  Pleasantville, by Attica Locke.    Harper, 2015, Hardcover, 432 pages.

Favorite — 5 stars

Another fine mystery by an African American woman who writes insightfully about race, politics and white-collar crime in her hometown of Houston.

Attica Locke is one of my favorite contemporary African American authors.  She writes mystery novels that are far more than the genre usually provided giving readers an inside look at into diverse black individuals and communities. Here she focuses again on her hometown of Houston and the complex interplay of groups seeking political and economic power. This book is a sequel to her first novel, Black Water Rising, set in 1996, fifteen years after the previous novel.  Jay Porter, the black lawyer of the earlier book, is overwhelmed with grief over the recent death of his beloved wife, Bernie, and clueless about raising his 15-year-old daughter and 10-year-old son without her. Although he has won some major environmental cases for poor communities fighting pollution, the companies responsible for the damage refuse to pay up.  He lacks the drive to make them.  Then he becomes involved in the murder of young black women, the third in recent years, on the edges of Pleasantville, and again faces a complicated political intrigue.

Pleasantville is an actual neighborhood within Houston, the fictionalized setting of the book.  According to Locke, it was created in 1949, and advertised nationally in African American newspapers as “a planned community of new homes, spacious and modern in design, and built specifically for Negro families of means and class.” Its residents  had learned to fight back against those who would discriminate against them.

…yes, they endured the worst of Jim Crow, backs of buses and separate toilets; and, yes, they paid their toll taxes, driving or walking for miles each election day, waiting in lines two and three hours long. Yes, they waited. But they also marched. In wingtips and patent leather pumps, crisp fedoras and pinstriped suits, belted dresses and silk stockings, they marched on city hall, the school board, even the Department of Public Works, holding out the collective vote of a brand-new bloc as a bargaining chip to politicians reluctant to consider the needs of the new Negro middle class, and sealing, in the process, the neighborhood’s unexpected political power, which would become legend over the next four decades.

I was unable confirm Locke’s depiction of the neighborhood’s history although the Handbook of Texas Online, of the Texas Historical Association, indicates it could be accurate. Whether or not her description is factual, Locke captures the spirit of an important segment of African Americans, whom we tend to forget today.  With all their imperfections, Locke honors them as forgotten pioneers.  Their fight for ending segregation, however, eventually weakened the community.  By the 1990s it is no longer a rare “segregated oasis” for young black professionals with expanded housing options.  Others moving into Pleasantville are not always happy with its surviving First Members.

Jay Porter has been the lawyer for Pleasantville residents and is continuing to try to make an industry pay for the damages from a fire that had brought disaster to its residents. He is brought into the investigation of the murder of Alicia Newell, the third young black woman killed in Pleasantville.  The investigation threatens the campaign of Alex Hathrone, Houston’s former Chief of Police, running to become the first black mayor of Houston. Alex is the son of Sam Hathorne, the original creator of Pleasantville and its accepted leader. Affectionately called “The Chief Nigger in Charge,”Sam has long been “the funnel” through which resources have flowed into the neighborhood. He wants Jay to keep the murder from damaging his son’s campaign. Nothing is simple, however. Suspense rises as Jay has to decide what he believes is right while at the same time protecting his children from the dangers of his public stance. Some of his friends and enemies from Black Water Rising appear to help or hinder him. Jay must not only find who killed the young woman but he must sort out the political struggle swirling around it and threatening Pleasantville.

Attica Locke is a superb storyteller whose language and plotting keep readers engaged. She has a rare talent for capturing the essence of an individual or situation. As I read I was constantly amused by her depictions. Houston itself is the target of her sharp remarks.

Houston’s crime problem was as much a part of its cultural identity as its love of football and line dancing, barbecue and big hair, a permanent fixture no matter the state of the economy or the face in the mayor’s office. [Town’s focus included] the widespread fear that Houston would never pull out of the shadow of the oil bust that had decimated its economy in the 80s, wounding its diamond-crested pride, until it got its crime situation under control.

Locke’s account of the city’s politics was so real that I carefully checked sources on the web to assure myself that it was fictional. I was glad to see it was, except for George Bush hovering in the background and dirty tricks and big money that are changing American politics.

Although this is a sequel, those who have not read Black Water Rising need not worry about what they missed. Locke carefully fills readers in. The problem with reading Pleasantville first is simply that it could lessen the suspense of the earlier book which would be a shame.

I strongly recommend Pleasantville to readers who enjoy mysteries by people of color. For those, for example, who enjoyed Mala Nunn’s mysteries about South African apartheid.  And I recommend the novel to those who care about understanding the complexity of race relations in the United States.

 

 

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