Reading the Bailey’s Prize: Pleasantville by Attica Locke

Pleasantville is part of a series about a Texas lawyer named Jay Porter. I try never to come into a series in the middle, but this book was on the Bailey’s Prize longlist so it seemed worth a try.  Although coming in at Book 2 makes it difficult to write a good review, since I don’t know what came before.

I really enjoyed this book, which is part mystery, part legal thriller, and part historical novel.  It takes place in a Houston suburb that was created as an upscale black community during the civil rights era.  Now it’s the early 90s and Pleasantville has established itself as a strong voting block which means the black community has political power.  I loved the attention to racial and political issues.  Locke really pays attention to the time and place of this book, and her discussions of racial issues, particularly voting, are set in a historical context, from the Jim Crow laws to the Civil Rights movement to what’s happening in the 90s.

Locke also pays attention to character development.  Her main character felt really human to me.  He’s got a checkered past but is also an attorney devoted to helping communities.  He used to be willing to put everything on the line for his cases.  But his wife died a year ago and that has him trying to figure out how to cope with his grief and be a good father to his two children.  He’s decided that lawyering (and helping the community) has to come second.

Unfortunately, it’s hard to scale back when you’re working on a giant class action suit that hasn’t been resolved yet, and Jay’s clients are getting anxious about whether he’s able to see this case through.  Then the most powerful man in the neighborhood hands him a case he’s not prepared for: defending his grandson from a murder charge.

This is Locke’s second Jay Porter novel, so I’d recommend starting with the first one, Black Water Rising, especially if you like legal thrillers.  Honestly, legal thrillers aren’t a favorite genre of mine (law school was enough for me) so I read Pleasantville more for the issues it raises. But there’s a lot of backstory in this book that you get in the first book.

As a mystery, there’s so much going on that no one seems to actually care who the murderer is.  Jay may be a good lawyer, but as an investigator he ignores a lot of clearly important clues and puts his friends and family in a lot of danger.  He’s tenacious but in over his head and trying to do too many things at once.  It’s a very twisty-turny story that mostly works.

When it comes to historical mysteries (and yes, the 90’s count as historical in this book), I’d rather have strong historical detail and good character development than a perfect murder mystery.  So while mystery plot isn’t as strong, I definitely found this a good read.

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