They are about to head back inside when they hear the first scream, what sounds at first like a cat’s cry, shrill and desperate. It’s coming from the north side of the bayou, high above them, from somewhere in the thick of trees and weeds lining the bank. At first Jay thinks of an animal caught in the brush. But then… he hears it again. He looks at his wife. She too is staring through the trees. The old man in the baseball cap suddenly emerges from the captain’s cabin, a narrow slip of a room at the head of the boat, housing gears and controls. “What the hell was that?” he asks, looking at Jay and Bernie.
This literary mystery novel begins with a pulse-pounding scene in which Jay Porter and his wife Bernie, pregnant with their first child, are supposed to be celebrating their anniversary on a private night-time bayou cruise. It’s 1981, and Jay, an African American lawyer with a struggling practice, barters with a client whose cousin owns a barge. Instead of a romantic moonlit cruise, however, they hear screams and gunshots, and Jay finds himself rescuing a white woman from drowning in the river.
Jay doesn’t want to get involved with whatever she’s tangled up in, though, because he is a man haunted by his past. After an arrest and harrowing trial as a college-aged Black Panther movement activist, he is understandably locked down by fear and paranoia. He can’t let himself trust even Bernie. She’s supposed to be the one person on his side, but he can’t let her in on his predicament. Because he is indeed drawn in to the drowning woman’s intrigue, whether he likes it or not. Big Oil, a looming labor strike breaking down along racial lines, and his former romantic relationship with the now-Mayor of Houston all play a part in this engrossing thriller.
Ms. Locke is good at nailing tension-filled action scenes, but she also has the nuance of a literary fiction writer. Occasionally I found myself getting bogged down in some of the details of this complex story line, but overall I really enjoyed the suspense and the glimpse of early 1980s Houston. The second half of the book has a particularly fast pace. I also appreciated Locke’s delving into Jay’s past as a “radical” college civil rights activist. Lots of complicated history there. Locke is a talented writer, and she is a screenwriter for the Fox show Empire. I’m definitely going to read her other books, Pleasantville, which also features Jay Porter, and The Cutting Season. If you appreciate a smart thriller like I do, you should check out Black Water Rising.