Murder in a black Texas Arcadia

Attica Locke’s smart legal thriller, Pleasantville, is set in an elegant suburb of Houston, specifically designed for middle-class blacks. But it’s still a ghetto — with very few exit points

18 April 2015

9:00 AM

18 April 2015

9:00 AM

Pleasantville Attica Locke

Serpent’s Tail, pp.420, £14.99, ISBN: 9781846689482

Mystery fans and writers are always looking for new locations in which murder can take place. Attica Locke has an absolute beauty in her latest thriller, Pleasantville. The eponymous district in Houston, Texas, was created in the aftermath of the second world war: ‘a planned community of new homes, spacious and modern in design, and built specifically for negro families of means and class’. However, many of the same fears and frustrations that affect poor black people are also prevalent here; racism, prejudice, the sense of being trapped in a social ghetto. And when a teenage girl is found dead, the town splits along the old faultlines of class, political difference and simple human longing.

The story is set in 1996. Axel Hathorne stands a very good chance of becoming the first black mayor of Houston, until his nephew, Neal, is charged with the
teenager’s murder. Jay Porter is the lowly defence lawyer forced to take on the case, a far cry from his usual concerns of environmental law. But Pleasantville is an endangered environment in itself, as the various parties struggle for power, and big businesses and other races move in, threatening to change the district forever. It’s a fascinatingly complex setting and Locke maps it with great skill, charting the struggles of her characters as the crime remains unsolved.

Jay has problems of his own; his wife has recently died, leaving him to bring up two children. This provides the emotional core of the book, superbly handled, as the murder case affects his home, and towards the end, the life of his daughter. Jay is tired and restless, his days of civil rights protest long behind him. He’s ‘46 now, which might as well be 60 in black man years’. The last thing he needs is a high-profile murder case. But this is a story in which people are trapped by their destinies. Pleasantville, for all its signs of progress, has very few exit points, unless you’re rich, or extremely ruthless.

This is a smart legal thriller about how far people will go to gain power, and keep it. The title of Nicolas Poussin’s painting of 1638 ‘Et In Arcadia Ego’ is usually understood to mean ‘Even in Arcadia death exists’. And even in socially engineered paradises, a killer can stalk the streets. The struggle continues.

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