The Cutting Season By Attica Locke

An engrossing crime novel which, at times, chafes against demands of the genre

Attica Locke's debut novel, Black Water Rising, was a well-deserved success. At a time when crime fiction is dominated by efficient entertainments, Black Water Rising offered something far more ambitious – a sprawling political thriller, set in Houston, Texas, and offering a nuanced account of the gains and losses achieved and suffered over two generations of the civil rights movement. Her follow-up, The Cutting Season, once again addresses important themes, though this time set in a rural backwater.

Almost all the action takes place in a historic Louisiana mansion called Belle Vie, whose general manager is an African-American single mother called Caren Gray (a surname that evokes her sometimes uncomfortable position between the black staff and the white owners). Belle Vie was once a working sugar plantation; now it's a tourist attraction. The thoroughly engaging Caren was born there: her mother was the cook, her childhood playmates were the Clancy brothers, now the plantation owners. She left to study law in New Orleans but returned after the breakdown of her marriage. It was meant to be a temporary bolthole, but four years later, she's wondering if she'll ever move on.

Then a body is found on the edge of the plantation grounds, that of a Hispanic woman who works nearby. Caren is terrified, especially when she finds out that her nine-year-old daughter, Morgan, seems to know more about the murder than she is letting on.

Locke gradually widens her plot. The murder may have something to do with the shady dealings that led to Belle Vie falling into the Clancys' hands after the Civil War. Could it be that Caren's own ancestors had a legitimate claim to the property? This question becomes more urgent when we discover that Raymond Clancy is planning to sell Belle Vie to agribusiness.

There are obvious echoes here of the work of Louisiana's best-known crime novelist, James Lee Burke, but Locke, unsurprisingly, has her own take on life amid the seductive, sinister bayous of Cajun country. As the trajectory of the novel deepens and darkens, Caren becomes aware of the many ambivalences of her situation, and realises that to escape her history, she has to acknowledge it. In the process, she realises that Belle Vie, a relic of antebellum beauty and elegance, belongs as much to the black people who built it as to the white people who owned it.

The Cutting Season is not entirely successful: there are moments at which one senses that Locke is chafing against the relentless plot demands of the crime novel. She is, on the whole, happier with the domestic dramas, particularly those between Caren and her daughter, than with the action scenes. Nevertheless, this is a highly engrossing and genuinely thought-provoking piece of crime fiction: one that reminds us of the genre's potential to go well beyond simple entertainment.

John L Williams's 'Miss Shirley Bassey' is published by Quercus