Review - PLEASANTVILLE, Attica Locke

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Political thriller and social comment combine in this thrilling third novel from Orange Prize shortlisted author of Black Water Rising.

It's 1996, Bill Clinton has just been re-elected and in Houston a mayoral election is looming. As usual the campaign focuses on Pleasantville - the African-American neighbourhood of the city that has swung almost every race since it was founded to house a growing black middle class in 1949. 

Axel Hathorne, former chief of police and the son of Pleasantville's founding father Sam Hathorne, was the clear favourite, all set to become Houston's first black mayor. But his lead is slipping thanks to a late entrant into the race - Sandy Wolcott, a defence attorney riding high on the success of a high-profile murder trial. 

And then, just as the competition intensifies, a girl goes missing, apparently while canvassing for Axel. And when her body is found, Axel's nephew is charged with her murder.

Sam is determined that Jay Porter defends his grandson. And even though Jay is tired of wading through other people's problems, he suddenly finds himself trying his first murder case, a trial that threatens to blow the entire community wide open, and reveal the lengths that those with power are willing to go to hold onto it.

Book Review

Attica Locke’s first novel Black Water Rising, a legal thriller involving big oil, was shortlisted for the Orange Prize and heralded the arrival of a new talent. In Pleasantville, Locke’s third novel, she returns fifteen years later to the protagonist of her debut, Jay Porter, and drops him into the middle of a mix of murder, politics and general skulduggery back in his hometown.

Pleasantville is a suburb in Houston, established in the post-war period for aspiring black families. The residents have spent years fighting for the amenities that other communities took for granted. But fifty years later things are starting to change. It is 1996, and as Clinton is swept back into power, Axel Hathorne, former Chief of Police and son of one of the founding families of Pleasantville, finds himself having to fight in a run-off election for Mayor against his main rival, the DA Sandy Wolcott. He expects to have Pleasantville behind him in the election, but things are not that simple anymore.

Jay Porter, the central player in Pleasantville, is a fascinating, well-drawn character. A Houston local and former social activist, Jay is struggling to raise his two children following the death of his wife from cancer. Jay built his career on class actions suits following his success against Cole Oil in Black Water Rising. But what he considers his last case, brought on behalf of the citizens of Pleasantville against a local chemical company, is foundering as he struggles to stay focussed. When a girl goes missing on election night and Axel’s nephew is accused of her murder, Jay is drawn in and finds himself exactly where he does not want to be – back in court.

The murder mystery, while driving the plot, is not the central concern of the book. While it ostensibly about a local mayoral election, it is also more broadly about the American political landscape. In its exploration of the suburb, its residents and the way they have changed over time, it Pleasantville is also about broader social change.

Pleasantville has everything - politics, murder, mystery, courtroom drama, and a deep emotional core in its focus on Jay Porter and his relationships. Locke effortlessly keeps all of these elements in the air, revealing elements of the plot sparingly, dropping twists like bombshells. Pleasantville is crime writing as it should be – engaging, compulsive and surprising but never losing sight of deeper social and human drivers that sit behind the action.  

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