Book Review: Maureen Corrigan on 'Black Water Rising' by Attica Locke

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By Maureen Corrigan
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, June 22, 2009

BLACK WATER RISING

By Attica Locke

Harper. 430 pp. $25.99

How much plot is too much plot? It's a question that has particular relevance to mystery fiction given that mysteries, by definition, are meant to confound.

Too thin a plot spells curtains for a thriller unless some other literary element comes to the rescue. For instance, these days, Robert B. Parker's Spenser novels offer only the barest whisper of a suspense story, but we fans read them -- as we might read those annoying holiday letters -- to keep up with the latest news of Spenser and his diverse alternative family.

Too convoluted a plot can leave readers frustrated unless, once again, something else keeps us intrigued enough to stick with the story. Raymond Chandler's "The Big Sleep" provides the genre's most famous anecdote about an over-the-top plot. In 1946, when Howard Hawks was filming his noir version of the novel starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, he telegrammed Chandler to ask the crucial question: Who killed Owen Taylor, the chauffeur bumped off early in the novel? Chandler wired back: "I don't know." Along with the immortal figure of Philip Marlowe, "The Big Sleep" conjured up such a haunting vision of the world as a "wet emptiness" that, ultimately, no one much cared about a dangling loose end like Owen Taylor's murderer.

But when a mystery plot is all knotted up and largely devoid of compelling characters or atmosphere, then it's in trouble. That's the kind of trouble Attica Locke's debut novel, "Black Water Rising," lands in immediately after an engrossing first chapter.

The boffo opening sets Locke's young protagonist, Jay Porter, squarely in the good-man-in-the-wrong-place-at-the-wrong-time category of suspense hero. The year is 1981, and Jay is building his career as a lawyer, the kind whose office is in a Houston strip mall and whose clients tend to be low on cash but high on unrealistic expectations of winning big in court. Determined to do something special for his pregnant wife on her birthday, Jay barters with one of his hapless clients whose cousin owns an old barge, and before a seasoned thriller reader can shout, "Bad idea; stay home!" Jay and his wife are stepping aboard this scow for a moonlight cruise.

As they creak along the bayou that snakes through Houston, they hear a woman screaming for help. Shots ring out. Then a splash as a body hits the water. Jay dives in and retrieves a woman from the deep. She's a mess but okay; strange thing is, though, she won't open her mouth to tell Jay, his wife or the barge pilot anything about what just happened.

The interaction is complicated by the fact that the woman is white and everyone else on the boat is African American. A veteran of the Black Power Movement who narrowly escaped a jail sentence on a government frame-up, Jay is wary of meddling in white folks' problems. Once off the boat, he drives the still close-mouthed woman to a police station and leaves her at the entrance. He thinks he's walked away from whatever mess she's in. He's wrong.

The plot that proceeds from this attention-getting opening is murkier than the bayou after a crawfish convention. It involves something about crooked union leaders and crooked Texas oilmen and crooked politicians including an old (white) girlfriend of Jay's, who's now the mayor and who may or may not have finked on him to the feds back in the day. The narrative wends its way back to Jay's activist college days and forward to multiple threats on his life and around to ruminations about race. All of these circumlocutions would be tolerable if the characters had any heft; instead, all of them, including Jay, feel sketchy.

Locke comes to mystery fiction from her career as a screenwriter (she's working on an HBO miniseries about the civil rights movement and has just completed a film adaptation of Stephen Carter's "The Emperor of Ocean Park"). Her screenwriting background squeaks all too loudly in many transitional moments like this one:

"The late-night drive is unsettling, the air kind of heavy with the knowledge that this is trouble's hour. Jay pushes in the car lighter and rolls down his window. He lights a cigarette and thinks about his wife.

"She was just a kid when they met, thirteen years old when her father brought her by the courthouse. . . ."

Fade into another plot digression that ultimately provokes more bafflement than interest. In "Black Water Rising" both the bayou and the mystery plot that arises from it are in need of a stronger filtration system.

Corrigan, the book critic for the NPR program "Fresh Air," teaches a course on mystery fiction at Georgetown University.


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