Friday, August 19, 2016

Review of Pleasantville by Attica Locke (2015, Serpent’s Tail)

1996, Houston.  Former police of chief Axel Hathorne is running to become the first black mayor of the city.  Pleasantville, a planned neighbourhood built in the 1950s, is a key battleground district.  It’s Hathorne territory, with Axel’s father being a founder and key community leader.  When a young woman disappears while campaign volunteering it sets the community on edge, especially as two other women were sexually assaulted and murdered in previous years.  Then Axel’s son is first accused of being complicit in her disappearance, then when her body is found, murder.  Given the thin complicit evidence and Axel’s main rival is the attorney general, whose office is prosecuting the case, it appears that some very dirty politics is at play.  Pleasantville native, activist and environmental lawyer, Jay Porter, is hired to represent Axel’s son, despite having little criminal trial experience. Porter has his own problems given the death of his wife a year ago, a break-in at his office, and someone trying to steal his clients.  But he’s tenacious and he detests injustice.  However, there are powerful forces at work that have a larger agenda and are prepared to play hardball.

Pleasantville is a political and legal thriller set in Houston in 1996.  As well as telling a complex tale of murder and political and community skulduggery, Locke also provides insightful social commentary on communities in transition, election campaigning, environmental racism and long-term legal battles.  The wider context is the Clinton years and the Republican long-term strategy for a run on the White House in 2000. The story has many interlocking moving parts that all swirl around the Hathorne family and Jay Porter.  The Hathorne’s helped found Pleasantville, a planned black community, and Axel is running to be the city’s first black mayor.  Porter is a single father, activist and environmental lawyer who has been seeking damages for local residents from contamination.  While there are a number of subplots, the hook of the story is the disappearance and murder of a young female campaign volunteer and how her death is used politically and personally.  Given the various threads, the number of characters and the social and political commentary it’s an ambitious tale.  Overall, it mostly delivers on this ambition.  At the start there is a lot of moving pieces into place and introducing characters and threads that dulls the pace and demands concentration, but as the story progresses the intrigue, tension and pace increases, and Locke makes some interesting observations about racial and environmental issues and local/national US politics.

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