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In this, Attica Locke's debut novel, black refers to both race and crude oil, the lifeblood of Houston, the city in which the novel is set.


It is 1981, and down at heel black lawyer is treating his pregnant wife Bernardine to a birthday dinner on a hired boat on a bayou in the town. Their celebrations are interrupted by cries for help. Jay saves the white woman he finds in the water, and he and Bernie take her to the police station then leave.


Jay has no reason to trust the police, having done jail time as a former black radical (Stokely Carmichael makes a cameo appearance later in the story). His girlfriend of the time, former member of the radical Students for a Democratic Society, is Cynthia Maddox, is now the city's mayor, reinvented for the Reagan era. Following his discovery that there was a murder that night on the bayou, Jay is drawn into investigating the case and needing to enlist Cynthia's help. She, however, is distracted by a brewing dockworkers' strike, with the union dividing along racial lines. One of the white union leaders is accused of beating up a young black worker, further stoking tensions and bringing Jay's father-in-law, Reverend Boykins, into the picture when the family of the young man go to him for help.   


Such a strike would cripple the local oil industry, and the Mayor is being leaned on by Thomas Cole, one of the city's oil barons. Cole, of course, turns out to be a pretty shady character, manipulating the situation to his own purposes.


As this plot summary suggests, Black Water Rising is pretty convoluted, perhaps overly so. Jay is overloaded with back story, although his past is perhaps the most interesting part of the book, as Locke neatly contrasts he and Cynthia's youthful idealism with the compromises they have made as older people. The strike also provides useful backdrop and context, but distracts from the core plot.


Locke also can't resist the lure of some of the genre's cliches: Jay is tailed by a mysterious stranger only ever known as the man in the Ford, for example.


Overall, The Cutting Season is an efficient example of its type but, much like Tom Rob Smith's thriller Child 44, which a few years ago made the Man Booker shortlist a few years ago, I don't quite see why this got the nod from the Orange Prize judging panel. It's not bad, but I don't know what separates it out from other legal thrillers.  




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