A Guide to the Thriller Writing of Attica Locke
Attica Locke was born in Houston, Texas in 1974. She grew up in Texas before moving from Houston to attend North Western University in Illinois. Her initial aim was to become a film director, independent of the main studios. As part of this aim, she studied both screenwriting and directing at the Sundance Institute’s feature film maker’s lab in 1999, but she realised that her interests lay in writing rather than directing.
During the last 20 years she has written screenplays and done some producer work for all the major studios and Netflix. Her careers as an author effectively began in 2005 when she took a “timeout” in order to work full time on her first novel, Black Water Rising which was ultimately published in 2009. Since 2009, she has effectively had two strands to her career, alternating between writing for television and writing fictional novels. Locke believes that the two strands complement each other well and she confirms that she feels at home both in the world of publishing and also in the world of movies/T.V. In terms of her Hollywood type career, it is worth noting that she now lives in Los Angeles with her husband and daughter.
Locke is clearly multitalented as a writer/producer of T.V. content and as an author of contemporary fiction. However, it is her career as an author that concerns us most and the remainder of this post focuses on the fiction of Attica Locke.
Books and Awards
- Locke’s debut novel Black Water Rising was published in 2010. It is a reflection of her very high-quality work from the beginning that the novel was nominated for an Edgar Award for Best First Novel and also nominated for a Los Angeles Times Book Prize. Black Water Rising immediately established Locke as a respected novelist and made it clear that she could have a full-time career as a successful novelist.
- Locke’s second book, The Cutting Season was published in 2012 – see review below.
- Her third novel, Pleasantville was published in 2016 and won the Harper Lee prize for legal fiction.
- Bluebird, Bluebird published in 2017 further elevated Locke’s status significantly. The book won the Edgar Allan Poe Award for Best Novel of the Year in 2018, the Anthony Award for Best Novel also in 2018 and the Crime Writers of America Ian Fleming Steel Dagger Award again in 2018.
Bluebird, Bluebird is reviewed below but it is worth noting that it is the first novel in what is likely to become a series of novels featuring Darren Matthews, a black Texas Ranger working in East Texas.
- Heaven, My Home is the second novel in the Darren Matthews series, and this was published in 2019 to universal acclaim.
Before going on the review the books, it is worth noting that Locke is classified as a writer of crime fiction. While crime certainly features in all of her novels, it is however, abundantly clear that racial inequality is in fact the main theme running through all of her work. A classification in the area of modern fiction would certainly be equally appropriate.
Black Water Rising (2010)
Attica Locke burst onto the scene in 2010 with the publication of a superb first novel, Black Water Rising. The book was shortlisted for the Orange Prize, nominated for an Edgar Award, an NAACP Image Award and a Los Angeles Times Book Prize. Black Water Rising marked the arrival of a major new talent in the thriller/crime/literary fiction area.
The action gets under way when our protagonist, Jay Porter hears a scream on the Houston Bayou. Jay’s immediately noble reaction leads to him saving the woman from drowning, but his heroic impulse results in Jay becoming drawn into a murder investigation with far reaching consequences and an investigation that could cost him everything.
Jay’s own back story as a lawyer who never reached the levels that he set out to reach, as a person who was a radical in his younger years and as someone who has resolved to make a fresh start presents a fascinating background against which the action unfolds. The Black Panther movement is referenced and, as with all of Locke’s fiction, race relations in present day America are at the heart of the story.
The book reaches a thrilling climax and the fact that it is a first outing for a major new talent makes it even more noteworthy.
The book is highly recommended to anyone who enjoys top quality crime/thriller writing with thought provoking elements and this reviewer awards it a rating of 84%.
The Cutting Season (2012)
Locke followed up Black Water Rising with The Cutting Season, published in 2012.
The book is set in 21st century America, on a plantation run for many generations by a rich local family. The historic plantation house Belle Vie has become a tourist attraction and effectively a live-in museum. It is managed by Caren who was born and raised on the plantation. Caren carries out a daily inspection of the grounds and buildings of Belle Vie and the action begins to unfold when a dead body is found on the grounds. Caren suddenly finds herself managing a tourist attraction with police onsite, with a murder investigation kicking into top gear and with a missing staff member.
The fact that Caren and her young daughter live alone on the large plantation grounds helps to create an air of menace throughout and this is the backdrop against which the action unfolds. While The Cutting Season could be described as a murder mystery, it is in fact so much more – it is literary fiction of the highest order and the unfolding story covers race (as always with Locke), love and relationships, political ambitions and, most importantly of all, lives that have been shaped by the stain of slavery in the American South.
Although Obama is in the White House, how much have things really changed? The plantation is still owned by the rich, white owners and the staff maintaining the tourist attraction are virtually all black. This aspect of the story is expertly portrayed as Caren is drawn into an investigation of the dead girl’s history and makes stunning discoveries about the proposed future for Belle Vie as well as the dark secrets of its past – the incredible surface beauty of Belle Vie is underlain by the shameful history of its past.
As with Locke’s first outing Black Water Rising, Locke uses the novel to provide a frank commentary on modern day America including race relations, political ambitions and the application of the law while simultaneously maintaining thriller writing of the highest quality. The air of menace at the plantation is expertly maintained throughout and, although the pace seemed to flag briefly once or twice, The Cutting Season is highly recommended to anyone who is interested in thriller writing of the highest quality with thought provoking elements expertly woven into the story.
This reviewer awards it a rating of 80%.
Locke’s third outing, Pleasantville was published in 2016. It was shortlisted for a Crime Writers of America Gold Dagger and long listed for the Women’s Prize for Fiction.
As always Locke’s novel is set in real time. In this case it is 1996 and Bill Clinton has just been re-elected to the White House. Meanwhile, in Houston, Texas the election for Mayor is coming up, and as always the campaign will focus on Pleasantville for the very simple reason that this African American neighbourhood has been instrumental in deciding almost every political race since the neighbourhood was founded in the late 1940’s with a view to housing a then growing black middle class.
The political race pits Axel Hawthorne, who seems destined to become the first black Mayor of Houston against a white Defence Attorney Sandy Wolcott. Sandy is enjoying a particularly high profile in the media due to a recent high-profile successful murder case.
The action really gets under way when at the high point of the electoral race, a young girl canvassing for Axel goes missing and is subsequentially found murdered. When Axel’s nephew is charged with her murder, the family determines that Jay Porter (last seen in Black Water Rising) should take on the role of Defence Attorney notwithstanding his complete absence of experience at this level of the Criminal Justice System.
This third novel is probably Locke’s most complex to date expertly describing African American life against a background of political intrigue, questions of identity and family, all with an undertone of incipient racism. The no holds barred political contest plays out against the even more complex background of Jay Porter’s internal struggles.
All in all, a more than satisfactory third outing for Locke and a completely satisfying read. This reviewer awards it a score of 81%.
In any review of racism in modern day America, the case of James Byrd quickly arises.
Byrd was murdered by three self-confessed white supremacists in Jasper, Texas in June of 1998. Byrd was tied to the back of a pick-up truck and dragged along an asphalt road for a distance of three miles. The medical evidence suggests that he survived for at least half of the three-mile journey and the perpetrators made no effort whatsoever to hide the crime, simply untying the pick-up and driving off. The almost unimaginable cruelty of this murder is somehow made even worse by the fact that the perpetrators and victim knew each other.
Twenty years ago, this incident was deemed to be a watershed moment in race relations in America and two of the three perpetrators became the first white people to be sentenced to death in modern Texas for the murder of a black victim. The two executions were carried out in 2011 and 2019 and the third perpetrator is still serving a life sentence for his part in the murder. At the time, the perpetrators acknowledged that there was no motive whatsoever for the murder other than race and showed no remorse for the appalling crime.
Contrary to expectations twenty years ago, there have been so many appalling incidences of racism in the US over recent years and we have now reached what is deemed to be another watershed moment with the killing of George Floyd sparking outrage and protests across the entire globe. Only time will tell whether we have now, in fact, reached a watershed moment in relation to all forms of racism in the modern world.
Bluebird, Bluebird (2017)
Locke’s fourth book Bluebird, Bluebird was published in 2017 and introduced black Texas Ranger Darren Mathews. In his role as a Texas Ranger Darren is assigned to working the small backwards towns along Highway 59 in East Texas. He gets involved in a case in one of these small towns, Lark where two dead bodies have washed up in the Bayou. The body of a black Lawyer from Chicago is discovered first followed by the body of a local white woman. The events have stirred up the never far from the surface racial tensions in the small town and Darren is in a race against time to solve the crimes before racially based violence erupts.
This fourth outing further marks Locke out as a major talent to be reckoned with. The small-town setting creates a claustrophobic tension as there is no way for Darren to investigate the case without interacting on an ongoing basis with the racist white population of the town. Having tried to get as far away from Texas as possible by enrolling in a Law School in Chicago Darren is drawn back inexorably to his home State. Darren himself is of course a seriously flawed character and the characterisation of Bluebird, Bluebird is one of the things that makes it such a satisfying read.
In summary, this hugely satisfying read and Locke’s ability to write atmospheric, pacey, character driven novels, underpinned by a background of simmering racial tensions, in modern day America is perfectly demonstrated here. You are urged to read this book, which is strongly recommended, and this reviewer gives it a score of 89%.
Both Bluebird, Bluebird and Heaven, My Home are often referred to as the Highway 59 novels. U.S. Route 59 isa North-South Highway, over 3,000 kilometres long and extending from Laredo, Texas at the Mexican border all the way to Lancaster, Minnesota at the Canadian border. In its North-South area, the route generally parallels Route 75 over virtually the entire length. However, as you head South, the route takes a significant turn Westward in Houston, Texas and, in fact the route is often signed as an East-West route in parts of Texas.
While U.S. 59 runs the full length of the United States, it is particularly associated with the State of Texas and the Texas section of U.S. 59 is named as the Lloyd Bentsen Highway, after Lloyd Bentsen a former US Senator from Texas.
The Texas Ranger at the heart of the two Highway 59 novels tends to use U.S. 59 as his main artery of travel and hence the linkage between the two novels and U.S. Route 59.
Heaven, My Home (2019)
Locke’s fifth and most recent outing entitled Heaven, My Home is the second outing for our fictional investigator Texas Ranger, Darren Mathews. Again, the novel is set in real time and in this case, it is firmly set in the Trump presidency.
In this second outing for the Texas Ranger, Mathews is sent to investigate the disappearance of a nine-year-old boy, Levi King who has gone missing in the vastness of Caddo Lake in East Texas. While trying to solve the crime, Mathews is trying to solve a number of his own issues, with his future career and indeed his reputation as a Texas Ranger lying in the hands of his mother. Unfortunately, it has never been clear that Darren’s mother actually has Darren’s best interests at heart and she certainly does not hesitate to blackmail her own son when the possibility of personal gain arises.
In my view, this fifth outing marks Locke out as one of America’s finest literary/thriller novelists and she has created an expertly plotted novel centring on the disappearance of a child, against the backdrop of rising racial tensions in Trump’s America.
As noted above, this is book number two in a series but functions very well as a standalone novel also. It is however, recommended that, if possible, readers should read the two books in the series in sequence if at all possible.
Locke’s mastery of pace and characterisation ensures that the book is a page turner as a thriller while Locke’s literary ability ensures that the book also functions as a commentary on race relations in Trump’s America. Overall, this book again marks Locke out as a talent to be reckoned with and hopefully we can all look forward to outing number three in the Texas Ranger/Darren Mathews series in the not too distant future.
In the meantime, Heaven, My Home provides more than enough entertainment to be getting on with – it is an absolute must read and this reviewer awards it a rating of 94%.
The Texas Rangers are a Statewide investigative law enforcement agency unique to Texas. They are an elite force and are regarded as being at the top of the police pyramid in the State of Texas. There are less than 200 Rangers in total and the force is based in Austin, Texas. The Texas Rangers are just one of thousands of law enforcement agencies across the United States. The lack of clarity arising from an arrangement whereby there are multiple law enforcement agencies in specific areas was best demonstrated by the confusion which reigned at the recent protests near the White House in Washington. The protests were part of the nationwide and indeed global protests following on from the killing of George Floyd and it proved completely impossible to determine exactly which law enforcement agency from the very many agencies based in Washington D.C. was actually responsible for maintaining law and order at Pennsylvania Avenue. Can this multiple agency approach actually be in the best interest of efficient policing?
The Texas Rangers have been in existence since the State of Texas was formed and they are part of the mythology of the Wild West. The Rangers have foiled presidential assassination attempts and have been centrally involved in some of the most famous cases across the United States including the pursuit of Bonnie and Clyde. There is however a more seedy side to the Rangers and they have also been involved in historic racist attacks against both Native Americans and Mexicans in the past.
The Texas Rangers have a museum dedicated to their history in Waco, Texas and this museum is very much worth a visit as part of any trip to the great State of Texas.