Black Water Rising – Attica Locke

Texas, 1981. Jay Parker, lawyer, is taking his six months’ pregnant wife, Bernie, on a romantic trip on the river. However, the boat is shabby, the bayou ‘is little more than a narrow, muddy strip of water’ and Jay’s

…feeling a knot tighten in his throat, a familiar cinch at the neck, a feeling of always coming up short where his wife is concerned. He feels a sharp stab of anger. The guy on the phone lied to him. The guy on the phone is a liar. It feels good to outsource it, to put it on somebody else. When the truth is, there are thirty-five open case files on his desk, at least ten or twelve with court time pending; there wasn’t time to plan anything else for Bernie’s birthday, and more important, there hasn’t been any money, not for months.

And you know what? It’s about to get a whole lot worse.

They are about to head back inside when they hear the first scream, what sounds at first like a cat’s cry, shrill and desperate. It’s coming from the north side of the bayou, high above them, from somewhere in the thick of trees and weeds lining the bank. At first Jay thinks of an animal caught in the brush. But then…he hears it again. He looks at his wife. She too is staring through the trees. The old man in the baseball cap suddenly emerges from the captain’s cabin, a narrow slip of a room at the head of the boat, housing the gears and controls.

“What the hell was that?” he asks, looking at Jay and Bernie.

Jay shakes his head even though he already knows. Somewhere deep down, he knows. It wasn’t an animal he heard. It was a woman.

A few minutes later, following gunshots and Bernie pleading with Jay to call the police, a body tumbles down the banking and into the river. Jay dives in and pulls out a woman, ‘white and filthy’ but still alive. Unable to get enough information from her to find out how much danger she is in, Jay and Bernie take her to the police station, dropping her off outside the door.

All of this takes place as Locke begins to introduce us to Jay’s backstory. It feels superfluous at the time but it becomes clear as the novel develops that it’s key to events that take place later on.

Bernie and the baby are all the family Jay’s got. He doesn’t speak to his mother or his sister and his friends abandoned him when he went to trial ‘on a charge of inciting a riot and conspiracy to commit murder of an agent of the federal government – a kid like him and a paid informant’. The only people who came to court everyday were women from the church through which, eventually, he met Bernie.

Jay’s current case involves a prostitute who’s been in an accident while out with a high profile member of the community. It’s clear he’s only taken the case for the money and trying to work out which cases will bring him financial reward has become part of his role. It wasn’t how his law practice began though. He took out a police brutality lawsuit on behalf of ‘a sixteen-year-old black kid who was nervous and fumbling for his licence’, who was dragged from his car and beaten. Jay took on a white attorney with a decade’s experience and won. The case got his name noticed but the people queuing up for help were disenfranchised black people who Jay wants to help but who can’t afford to pay him.

Before long though, he’s involved in two issues, neither of which are bringing in any money. The first is the case involving the woman from the beginning of the novel.

A white male, shot twice, found in an open field in the 400 block of Clinton, near Lockwood Drive in Fifth Ward, not fifty yards from Buffalo Bayou.

Jay can’t help taking an interest himself.

The second is due to Bernie’s father, the Reverend Boykins. He’s supporting a group of longshoremen, The Brotherhood of Longshoremen, a group of black men working on the docks. They’re a branch of the ILA, the International Longshoremen’s Association who are about to vote on whether to strike over pay; ‘…the black workers are routinely paid less than their white brothers…’. One of the young men has been attacked. He claims it was men from the ILA and his family and Reverend Boykins want Jay to represent him.

By now, you’re probably thinking sheesh, there’s a lot going on in this novel. So was I and I wondered how Locke was going to maintain the reader’s interest whilst holding up the threads of each plotline and not confusing the reader along the way. Of course, all these threads become intertwined as the novel progresses and Locke does a good job of keeping the connections both clear and twisty for the reader. She interlinks civil rights concerns from the sixties and seventies with present day concerns both about race and politics and its connection with industry.

Jay Parker’s a great new face to join the tradition of damaged investigators. Locke’s created someone shaped and hurt by his past but who’s trying to do good in his present. Obviously he doesn’t always get it right and there are points in the book where you want to scream at him, but they’re the points that make him human/rounded/flawed.

Black Water Rising is an impressive debut; to hold so many strands and bring them all to a satisfying conclusion is no mean feat. It’s a smart, satisfying read.