By Attica Locke
Published in 2015 by HarperCollins.
Reviewed by Manning Wolfe.
What’s fascinating about Pleasantville, Attica Locke’s latest thriller involving her series character, attorney Jay Porter, is that while it’s set in Houston in 1996, and the reader knows the history to come, we are dropped into the setting as if we did not. A suspenseful fictional ride ensues with the theme of post civil-rights era African-American history as a backdrop. References to George W. Bush’s upcoming presidential bid, ruthless electoral strategizing, and foreshadowing of the Enron scandal are sprinkled through the story giving it a feel of authenticity regarding locale and time.
When the story opens, the Houston mayoral race has come down to a run-off between Axel Hathorne, an African-American former police chief, and Sandy Wolcott, a white female district attorney. Hathorne’s biggest asset is Pleasantville, electoral district 259, a black community formed in the 1950s and organized into a power bloc. This minority electorate has the power to swing close elections, making it both a well-respected and targeted district by both black and white politicians.
Candidate Hathorne has a particular advantage in Pleasantville, as his father was one of the founders. However, when a young woman is murdered, last seen wearing a Hathorne campaign t-shirt on election night, the candidate’s run-off campaign suffers. When a Hathorne aide is accused of the murder, attorney Jay Porter steps in to fight the DA who is prosecuting the case which casts doubt on her own mayoral rival. Porter asserts his inexperience to handle a death-penalty case, his ongoing grief at the loss of his wife, and his dwindling bank account. However, he is so outraged by the suspicious indictment and potential corruption that he takes the case and begins his march toward justice by casting light into the darker side of power.
The dense plotting and numerous characters complicate the story in a way that can confuse the reader unless careful attention is paid. In addition to the young woman’s death, Locke weaves in many Pleasantville residents, two previous unsolved murders, and a corporate pollution suit that Porter is pursuing. Blues music is threaded throughout the story, adding another dimension that becomes more important as the plot evolves. All this occurs while Porter is repeatedly assaulted as a warning to drop the case.
The novel climaxes in a trial that satisfies the pickiest readers, and revelation of the murderer that surprises even the savviest “whodunit” fans. Pleasantville keeps the reader turning the pages, thinking, and guessing until the very end.
Manning Wolfe is an author and attorney residing in Austin, Texas. After many years of storytelling, Manning has begun a legal thriller series involving a Texas attorney based in Austin. The first in the series, Dollar Signs: Texas Lady Lawyer vs. Boots King was the winner of the 2014 Writer’s League of Texas Manuscript Contest. A graduate of Rice University and the University of Texas School of Law, she specializes in business law. Visit her website www.manningwolfe.com.