In Pleasantville we revisit Attica Locke’s activist lawyer, Jay Porter, first seen in her novel Black Water Rising. Now, 15 years later, Jay is no longer down and out—he has moved from his strip mall office into better digs and made a successful career out of defending the little guy against fraudulent oil and chemical corporations. He is respected. He has made it.
But ever since his wife, Bernie, died a year ago, Jay’s heart just hasn’t been in his work. And he has pared down his client list to just one case in order to focus on raising his son and teenage daughter, a task that he feels he is failing at anyway. There are things, Jay thinks, that his wife “knew about her family, not secrets so much as hard earned intimacies, that she inadvertently took with her, leaving the rest of them to fend for themselves in this new, foreign land, daily meeting at the kitchen table, or passing in the hallway without their shared interpreter.”
Haunted by his wife’s death, Jay readily agrees when Arlee Delyvan, an old friend, asks him to join the community in looking for Alicia Nowell, an 18-year-old who has gone missing. This is the third missing girl in three years. The other two were found dead and mutilated, six days after they disappeared. The community, understandably, is shaken. But it is more than that. Quite simply, this kind of thing doesn’t happen in Pleasantville.
Locke’s fictionalized version of Pleasantville, named after a real town, is the first planned community of affluent blacks in Houston. As such, the town has amassed a critical political power base: You couldn’t win in Houston, the saying went, without carrying Pleasantville. And the leader of this black community, the man who marshaled the votes—the unofficial mayor of Pleasantville—has always been Sam Hathorne. Now Pleasantville is getting ready to run its first black candidate for mayor of Houston, none other than Sam’s son, Axel Hathorne. But “between the two of them, it’s hard not to wonder whose political dream is being fulfilled, that of the son or the father.”
In the community of Pleasantville, we see echoes of Tulsa, Okla.’s Black Wall Street, one of the first wealthy, self-sustaining all-black towns to be developed in the early 1900s. Back then, Black Wall Street was destroyed in a night of violence by angry whites furious at the black folks who were doing well. Now, in Pleasantville, it is the slow death of encroaching factories, freeways and developments, poisoning the air and groundwater and wreaking sickness. “They’re trying to break Pleasantville,” Jay says when he begins to grasp the enormity of the political conspiracy behind the three missing girls. “And damn if they didn’t have help.”
Here, too, we see the very relevant depiction of the many missing black girls in America who simply do not get the same attention as missing white girls or missing black men, the latter dead from police brutality. Witness the handful of people who showed up to protest the needless death of Rekia Boyd at the hands of police in comparison with the citywide—nay, nationwide—uprisings to protest the deaths of Michael Brown and Freddie Gray at the hands of police officers in Ferguson, Mo., and Baltimore, respectively.
For the past two years, Sandy Walcott, the opposing mayoral candidate and current district attorney of Pleasantville, has been dragging on arresting a suspect for the kidnapping of the first two girls. Instead, Walcott poses for photo ops with Alicia Nowell’s family and spouts more false promises of bringing the killer to justice.
And the clock is still ticking. It is day 5 and Alicia is still missing. With time running out, the Pleasantville community, en masse, searches for the missing girl until her body is discovered. The community mourns. But they are quickly blindsided by the arrest of Neal Hathorne, nephew and campaign manager to mayoral hopeful Axel Hathorne. The charge? Obstruction of justice in the investigation of Alicia’s murder.
The Hathorne campaign is floored by this sneaky campaign move by Walcott’s office. Jay is roped into defending Neal, and the situation quickly spirals into something larger and more sinister than he could ever have imagined, something that could destroy the very essence of Pleasantville itself.
In the grand tradition of mystery thrillers, the storylines intertwine, twisting and turning in a race to discover the mastermind behind murder and conspiracy. Locke, also a writer and producer on Fox’s hit TV series Empire, is a master of plot and suspenseful pacing. And, as on Empire, her characters are larger than life and yet still raw, flawed and believable.
As in her previous novels, Black Water and The Cutting Season, her chapters end on cliff-hangers, one pushing on to the next in nail-biting tension. The world of this novel is multilayered and rich, vivid in its portrayal of relationships and community. A refreshing and much-needed addition to the thriller genre, in which novels of such craftsmanship, as well as black heroes, are rare.
Hope Wabuke is a Southern California-based writer and a contributing editor at The Root. Follow her on Twitter.