Fresh Blood

Name: Attica Locke

Title of Book: Black Water Rising

'...borders on the sheer poetic.'

As a special treat, Jay Porter, a black lawyer in Texas, is taking out his wife, Bernie, on the bayou on a boat. It is a special favour he has arranged. However, the boat isn’t exactly the grand vessel Jay had in mind – he’s not sure it is going to make the journey there and back. But with some persuasion, his pregnant wife gets on the boat with him and the start of a romantic evening appears to be on the cards...

Making their way back along with the captain of the boat the couple hear a woman screaming, shortly followed by two shots. Minutes later Jay is pulling a distressed woman out of the water. Despite having saved her from the black waters, the woman refuses to explain herself or to even call the police. As Jay drops the woman off at the police station little does he know that she is going to play a major part in his life in the coming weeks and little does Jay know that his past will soon be colliding with his present life… and he will be lucky to come out the other side alive.

Attica Locke has taken a real situation from her own life and replaced her own father with Jay Porter, imagining what would have happened if events had taken a different turn. With a deft and assured hand for a first time novelist, Locke takes Jay through a terrifying ordeal where he is not only worried for his life but has to accept the racial discrimination of a black man in America in the 1980’s. It seems inconceivable with the States being a country that boasts it leads the way in the world and has recently elected a Black American as its President, yet, as Locke so exactly describes, the road to equality is a rocky road that has only been travelled in recent history.

Intertwining Jay’s history with his current ordeal, Locke fleshes out her characters. There will be numerous comparisons to Grisham as Jay is a down-at-heel lawyer who gets paid with favours instead of ‘the green stuff’. But, unlike Grisham, Jay is not merely a plot device, he is a fully fledged human being and some of Locke’s description, especially of his pregnant wife,

Black Water Rising is an extremely confident and strong debut novel with Locke not only giving us a nail biting thriller, but showing her readers a part of America’s social history which can sometimes make for uncomfortable reading. However, as Locke brings Jay’s past and his present crashing together you feel that despite the dilemma of being a black man in Texas there is a happy ending awaiting Jay Porter and his imminent family. Black Water Raising is an extremely powerful read that may be slow to get started… but please persevere as, like many great novels that are slow burners, then deliver the goods by the very satisfying end.

Reviewed by: C.S.

CrimeSquad Rating

Fresh Blood Questionnaire

1) How would you classify your writing, and do you consciously try to write to a certain style or genre?
I suppose I am always trying to find the line between literary grace and a pop sensibility – which is also a reflection of my taste. As a reader, I like popular fiction as much as I like literary fiction. I think the world needs both.

I am drawn to crime fiction, both as a writer and a reader. Flannery O’Connor, the American Southern writer, has a wonderful quote: “With the serious writer, violence is never an end in itself. It is the extreme situation that best reveals what we are essentially... the man in the violent situation reveals those qualities least dispensable in his personality... which are all he will have to take into eternity with him.”
2) What type of crime novels do you like to read? Do you prefer series or standalone?
I certainly like crime stories that have something to say about our culture at large. One of the things I most respect about writers like James Ellroy, George Pelecanos, Donna Tartt, and even some of Pete Dexter’s work, is the way in which they are able to explore socio-political themes while never sacrificing plot or the beauty of prose.

I don’t know that I have much of a preference between stand alone crime books or series. As a reader, I get more attached to the writers than I do to their characters. Whatever a favourite author writes, I’ll read it, no matter what it is.
3) It is said that a member of your family heard a woman’s screams as they sailed down river... Is this a true story and would you like to expand on it?
Yes, the opening chapter is based on an event that happened to my family years ago. When I was ten or eleven years old, my father threw a birthday party for my stepmother on a boat on Buffalo Bayou in Houston, Texas. When we got out on the water, we heard a woman somewhere in the brush along the bayou… crying for help. And then we heard gunshots. There was an immediate debate on the boat about what to do. It was my father’s decision that we call the police.

I understand why father made the decision he did. He didn’t want to put his wife or his child in harm’s way. I think I was more fascinated by the argument that broke out between my father and my father’s best friend, a man who was once an activist with my dad; the two had been on trial together in 1970. These two men from similar backgrounds had two very different reactions to the situation. My father’s best friend thought we had a moral obligation to stop the boat. My father, by then a criminal defense attorney, said “no way.”

If it were me, on a boat with my daughter, and I heard gunshots, I would do the same thing my father did. I would call the police. Jay, the character in the book, jumps into the water to save the woman… which is the start of a bunch of trouble for him.
4) The story is set in the early 1980s. Why did you choose this period?
Well, Houston, Texas, was an interesting place in 1981. The city had just elected its first woman mayor, Kathy Whitmire. It was flush with oil money and on the receiving end of worldwide attention. It was an arrogant, adolescent city, newly rich and oblivious to signs of impending doom on the economic horizon. It perfectly encapsulated the early Reagan era in which I grew up. Also, a lot of Black Water Rising is reflection on my parents’ generation and what it must have been like for former political activists to transition out of the ideological heyday of the civil rights movement into the new economic realities of the Reagan ‘80s. I think in some ways writing the book was an attempt to understand the people who raised me.
5) Did the novel involve much detailed research and in what areas?
Well, I certainly already knew a great deal about Texas in the ‘80s, since I grew up there. I did read a lot of newspaper articles about the political landscape in Houston at that time. I also have been studying aspects of the civil rights movement my entire life – either in conversations sitting around the dinner table or in history courses I took when I was in school. The most research I had to do – and the part of the story that intimidated me the most – was the research into the oil industry. And I won’t say much more so as not to give away any of the plot.
6) It is incredible and appalling to read of the mistreatment of black people in such relative recent times in a ‘civilised’ country like the USA. Now, with America electing a black President, do you feel there will be great changes for black people generally?
As we've seen with the recent election of Barack Obama, America has a great capacity for self-correction. This precedent does signal a degree of racial healing in this country. The trick is to hold the contradiction – to acknowledge that we are in a brand new country and we are still tethered to our history; we still have a lot of work to do in terms of racial equality.
7) Where is your next novel based, and can you tell us a little about it?
My next novel takes place in Louisiana, and I won’t say much except that it’s contemporary; it’s a murder mystery; and there’s a woman at the center.
8) Which do you start with, plot or character?
I usually start with an incident I can’t get out of my head – a story I’ve heard or something I’ve experienced that keeps me up at night – and then I put a character in the center of it and build from there.
9) What are the qualities you look for in another writers' work?
Courage, honesty, a sense of play, humor, lyricism, and a basic love of humanity.
10) Who would be your dream cast of movie actors for an adaptation of your story?
You know, I never really cast it past the character of Jay. And the one actor who always comes to mind is Jeffrey Wright (“Cadillac Records,” “Syriana,” “Angels in America”).
11) Without giving away the plot, which book included your favourite plot twist of all time?
This is a cheat because it’s a stage play and not a book – but “A Soldier’s Play” by Charles Fuller (made into the movie “A Soldier’s Story,” directed by Norman Jewison) is one of my all-time favourite mystery stories in any medium.
12) What is your favourite movie adaptation of a crime novel?
“The Silence of the Lambs.”
13) Would you describe yourself as a crime fiction fan in general and, if so, which authors do you most admire and why?
Yes, I not only read crime fiction, but true crime books as well.

As I mentioned before, I love Ellroy, Pelecanos, Donna Tartt, Pete Dexter, Dennis Lehane and Walter Mosley.
14) What is your favourite crime read of all time?
Probably “In Cold Blood,” by Truman Capote.