Black Water Rising, By Attica Locke

A problem for Houston as oil floods the city
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The Independent Culture

At a charged meeting of disaffected dock workers, a former civil-rights activist tries to stir up the militant tendencies of the crowd. He fails miserably. As Jay Porter, once a radical and now a rather ramshackle attorney, observes, "They don't want a revolution. They want a bigger paycheck." It's a perfect summation of the themes that swirl through this superbly written and hugely compelling debut crime novel.

Set in Houston in 1981, Black Water Rising describes a changing American landscape – both politically and physically. Gone is the radical idealism of the late 1960s and 1970s, replaced by confusion; a crisis of identity for both black and white citizens. Houston's oil dollars and new technology are changing the city, and for those not part of this burgeoning new economy an uncertain future awaits. Through Jay Porter, Locke's novel moves between these two sides to the city showing a country ultimately divided not by race, but by money.

Fundamentally, Black Water Rising is about corruption – both of personal morality and big business. Not that this is obvious from a plot summary. After witnessing the aftermath of a murder down on the bayou, Jay finds himself drawn into a larger conspiracy that puts both him and his family in mortal danger. It may sound like a Hollywood-style thriller, but Black Water Rising's depths and concerns are much wider than the simple thrills it also provides.

Locke is excellent at bringing the city to life, the dirt-poor districts and shining new condos, the smart restaurants and strip-club dives; as well as the tawdry emotions and prejudices just below the skin of its residents. Locke's Houston teems with full-blooded characters, real people confused by the world around them. Even the moral centre of the novel, Jay, is conflicted when presented with a bribe. Crucially, it is not his once-stringent sense of justice that precludes him from taking it, but fear of the repercussions.

Though writing in a tightly-controlled present tense, Locke does occasionally have a tendency to reach for convoluted similes –a barge is like a big girl invited to her first and last school dance, for example – and can sometimes spell things out in unnecessary detail. These are minor faults in an impressive, well-plotted and intelligent crime drama.