Book Review: Black Water Rising: A Novel (Jay Porter Series)
by Attica Locke
Book Reviewed by Thumper
Attica Locke’s debut novel, Black Water
Rising, got a lot of press last year, a lot of good press. I’ve
been slowly getting back into the groove of reviewing, so I was not on the
cutting edge to see the novel’s success coming down the pike. After the
novel was nominated for an Edgar Allan Poe Book Award, I decided to get a
copy and check it out. You know, mystery novels are my first love, so I
thought I was in for the bomb-diggity book. I was so wrong! Black
Water Rising could have been the bomb-diggity, but it fell flat on
its face. The novel, which centers on a former 1960 black militant turned
lawyer who finds himself in the middle of a major financial conspiracy
surrounded by money and murder, could have been a fascinating read if it was
written more like a novel and less like a movie script.
In Houston, 1981; Jay Porter is a surviving black lawyer. When I say surviving I mean his ends are barely on speaking terms. His wife Bernadette, aka Bernie, is pregnant with their first child and with his finances in a crisis, he has to celebrate their anniversary on the cheap. Jay takes Bernie on a moonlit boat ride, for dinner and a pleasant evening. The evening goes sideways when a white woman screams for help from the riverbank and is suddenly in the river swimming towards the boat. Then gunshots are heard. Instead of listening to that small still voice in his head, Jay helps the woman into the boat. He knew it was a bad move and he was right. His act of compassion will bite him in the ass. From this act of kindness, Jay’s past will rise up and knock him square dead in the mouth, especially his college days when he was involved with the Black Panthers and was nearly convicted of murder. He will dodge bullets, get beat up, have his life threatened, get in the middle of a union fight and unravel a financial conspiracy, which if becomes known could bring down the entire economy of the state of Texas.
Black Water Rising has some awfully good things going for it, just not enough to stop me from hating it. The best component of the book is the solving of the mystery; that’s behind it, their motive and the length the culprits took to ensure that the money was going to keep rolling in. I loved it. The conspiracy was smart and I have no doubt that not only could it happen; it probably has taken place. The problem I have with Black Water Rising is everything else in the novel, especially the lead character and the narrative.
Jay Porter got on my damn nerves. Protagonists in suspense/mystery novels should never be boring or dull witted. Jay wandered around and bumped into things all through the novel. He did not have a vowel, a clue or a plan. Jay was tossed around like a row boat in a hurricane. He pissed me off! One, I don’t like hanging with simple minded people, in real life or in books. The detectives are supposed to be unknowing in the beginning of the book. I accept that premise. But Jay did not get the scent of a clue till damn near the end of the book. By that time, I was thoroughly sick of Jay and the book.
The book read as if it was a movie script. I hated it. It’s stated in Locke’s biography on the book that she is a screenwriter AND IT SHOWS! Not long after beginning the book, I started inserting directions like "camera moves across the room" and the like. Locke did not transform the idea from movie form to novel form. Narrative, rhythm, flow, tension, pacing, are all of the things that a successful novel and movie must possess; but these elements takes on different shapes when going from one medium to another. This fact evaded Locke. It gave me the impression that it came to Locke that camera shots panning in and out doesn’t translate to the novel’s pages well, so she inserted all of the details that the camera would have seen if it was doing the filming instead of my imagination. The story took on a weight that these highly detailed descriptions added, turning the story into a heavy, plodding mess. Half way through the book, I forgot I was reading Locke and swore I got stuck with an Elizabeth George novel instead. I despise Elizabeth George novels! She must get paid per word, because that woman can certainly make a mountain out of a mole hill FOR REAL! If I owned a gun while I was reading this novel, I would have shot my own self in the head…gladly!
Black Water Rising could have been an excellent novel…if it was written by someone else. I am completely baffled by all of the attention it received. I couldn’t understand it. So, just for shits and grins, I bought a copy of the winner of the 2009 Edgar Award in which Black Water Rising was nominated, The Last Child by John Hart. I had read Hart’s previous novel Down River and it was magnificent. The Last Child is equally as good. I’m glad I read The Last Child to get the taste of Black Water Rising out of my mouth.