Pleasantville, by Attica Locke *****

pleasantvilleJay Porter has a full plate, and so his legal career has been set on cruise control. Money is the least of his worries; he is successful, and has won a very large case, though it hasn’t paid yet. No, his issues have to do with family, and with grieving. And with grieving. And with grieving. His wife Bernie died young and fast due to an illness that she knew she had, but had chosen not to share. She pushed him to follow through on his enormous case against the oil company that had sickened, even killed people in their own close-knit, middle class African-American suburb outside Houston, Texas. It was important to everyone that the families affected experienced justice. But now he wishes he had spent more time by his wife’s bedside and less in the courtroom. His self-hatred for the time spent away from his wife and two children during that final crisis has left him determined not to set foot in another court room. Not ever.

And so this sequel to Black Water Rising, the red-hot hit by this author, starts out ominously, as a vulnerable teen waiting at a bus stop wonders whether she should run from the car that is watching her, even though she is so far from home that she doesn’t know how to get back, or wait for that bus. Next thing we know, she’s been murdered.

But Jay Porter is still too caught up in his own personal situation to pay much attention at first. Bernie’s sister Evelyn helped him get Bernie’s clothes packed up and moved out, but he can’t look at her car. Can’t look. And the holidays coming around the corner, all the gut-punching emotion with which they are fraught, that stinks too.

At this point, I should let you know that you can’t read this yet. It won’t come out till April, but I got my ARC from edelweiss books a week ago, and I’ve been reading it obsessively, so now is the time to review it. I will post this again when the book comes out, but for now, you can pre-order it, or put it on your Christmas list. After the holidays have come, gone, been cleaned up and winter survived, wouldn’t it be nice to come home and find this heart-pounding thriller waiting in the mailbox to make your weekend better? And what a story it is!

And so, back to Jay Porter. Porter is holding Cole Oil to the award the courts granted to the many citizens he represented. His fee, 20 million dollars, will be enough for him to retire on. He can send his secretary into the retirement she longs for, and he can put his feet up and be a father to his kids. But oh, how he wishes Bernie could be there.

Meanwhile, his friends and neighbors are growing agitated about Alicia Nowell’s disappearance. She is the third girl from the community to go missing in the past few years. The first two were kept alive for a few days; their bodies were found on day 6, and the coroner ruled they had been dead for only 24 hours or less. So they figure that girl is out there, alive, somewhere. Volunteer crews are searching fields after the cops have been there, squaring off grids in professional fashion while others knock on doors, try to get information that the local cop shop hasn’t found. And in the midst of a mayoral race, hay is being made by the opponent of the traditional Black candidate. Because the neighborhood has been slowly, insidiously (to some) changing since the death of Jim Crow. Now young Black kids from strong families don’t have to live in Pleasantville to find a good house. They can move wherever they want. That’s good, right? But Latino families looking for good schools and good housing find reception that is sometimes tense as they ease into town, and the old guard realizes they may no longer be a unified force politically.

Disbelief and horror take hold when the grandson of the community’s most venerated elder is arrested for the murder of Alicia Nowell. Assuming that an error has been made and without a second thought, Jay, who by coincidence happens to be at the police station while Neal Hathorne is being questioned, strides into the interrogation room and announces that he is Neal’s attorney. He has no idea what a firestorm he has unleashed upon himself, and upon his family.

I am retired, and have the luxury of several hours of designated reading time every evening. It’s pretty sweet. But this book caught me by the hair and made me stay with it, modifying my schedule so I could see just what the hell is happening here. My e-reader followed me down to the kitchen. It followed me into the laundry room. I was cranky when the phone rang and interrupted my time with Jay. Because after all, we had to get him out of this mess, and what the hell is going on with his daughter Ellie? Good thing he is being a careful father so that we won’t have to deal with that old, hackneyed now-they’re-after-his-own-kid plot line. Jay is smart enough to realize his daughter fits the profile of the kidnapped and murdered girls, and he is looking out for his girl. We respect him for it, and I nodded with approval at the e-reader as I fed the dog, went out to get the mail. I broke or spilled things four times because I wasn’t looking at what I was doing; I was reading this book, because the book couldn’t wait.

If Locke’s fingernail-biter of a tale reminds me of the style of any other writer, it is of James Lee Burke, now an octogenarian who is unlikely to write much more. And although only Locke knows whether it is intended as a nod to that bayou living legend, she names the bereaved parents Robicheaux. I rather liked the touch, if that’s what it was.

So whether you order this book, request it as a gift, or buy it when it comes out, consider it a must read. This book is already creating a buzz six months prior to publication, and it is going to be a monster. Don’t let yourself be left out!

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