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Black Water Rising by Attica Locke – multilayered crime fiction

Dark Water Rising by Attica Locke (2009) French title: Marée noire. Translated into French by Clément Baude.

I have the French translation of Black Water Rising by Attica Locke because I bought my copy at Quais du Polar, the year she was at the festival for conferences and book signings. I have fond memories of that edition of the festival.

It took me several years to read her book but I’m really happy I put it on the TBR. When the book opens, Jay Porter, a struggling lawyer is organizing a mini cruise on the bayou near Houston for his wife’s birthday. Money is tight, Bernie is pregnant and the cruise is more a boat tour with on a friend of a friend’s boat than a glamourous cruise. Things go rather well until they hear a woman shout on the shore, as if she were fighting with someone. A gunshot, a splash and Jay dives into the dark water to save a white woman. Jay and Bernie are black, we’re in 1981 and getting mixed into white people’s business is risky. That’s why they ask her almost nothing and drop her at a police station and drive away.

We soon learn more about Jay, his past as a civil rights militant and his current caseload. He needs money and so far, his best shot is a hooker, Dana Moreland who got injured in a car accident while she was entertaining the local harbor commissioner who also wants to go into politics. No need to say he’s ready to find a settlement to hush things up. Jay wants to get the most out of him and keeps investigating to find a witness to present to the court to support his client’s version.

Meanwhile, Reverent Boykins is involved in the Longshoremen Strike. The white union and the black union had to merge and the ex-black side is trying to convince the ex-white side to go on strike with them for a better pay. Reverent Boykins is Jay’s stepfather, and his church helped Jay win his trial when he was pursued under false pretenses. The real reason was that the FBI wanted this militant of the civil rights out of the streets. Jay is indebted to Reverent Boykins and can’t refuse to help with the strike and be their lawyer.

This is Houston in 1981, the oil economy is thriving, the city expands quickly and oils companies own everything, literally or figuratively. The three issues, the murder, the hooker and the longshoremen strike have areas where they overlap. Jay, who lives in fear after his short stay in prison, won’t be able to hide and stay under the radar. His past as a militant is about to spill into his present and the unsolved issues demand attention.

Black Water Rising is an excellent thriller. The crime plot is gripping and it mixes artfully a blood crime with white collar criminality and racial questions. It gives a good vision of Houston at the time, a sprawling city at the mercy of oil magnates. Their only god is money and they infiltrate everything for their own profit. A puppet female mayor at the City Hall. A mole in the unions. Some help in federal agencies.

Besides Houston at its turning point, Black Water Rises also questions of the aftermath of the civil rights movement. What did its militants become? Jay is one of the first black lawyer in the area. His companions have settled down into a comfortable middle class or hold on to their glory days like Kwane Mackalvy. It’s a valid question: what do you do after living intense years like this? What’s your new normal? And how do you see the people who came after you, benefited from your combats and don’t even realize what your generation brought to them? (The same question applies to women who grew up after the great feminist battles).

Jay is at a crossroad. He’s going to be a father. He needs to make peace with his past. His practice needs to soar to support his family. He needs to stop living in fear.

But now: who murdered this man in the bayou? Will the unions start a strike that will paralyze Houston’s commercial port and impact oil sales? What will happen to Jay, who keeps being thrown on the frontline while he’d like to take care of his wife? I’m afraid you’ll have to read the book!

Very highly recommended.

  1. August 16, 2021 at 11:44 pm

    So pleased you got round to reading Attica Locke. I like her a lot, and in fact prefer her earlier works rather than the series she is currently writing (although it’s by no means bad).


    • August 25, 2021 at 9:02 pm

      Sorry I am so late answering your message, life got in the way.

      I really enjoyed this one and I saw that there’s another book with Jay as a character. I’m interested in spending some more time with him.


  2. August 17, 2021 at 1:42 am

    I’ve enjoyed the couple of interviews with Attica Locke that I’ve seen and have had her books on the TBR for some time so I’m just skimming your post. (For now!) Good to know that she’s received your seal of approval though!


    • August 25, 2021 at 9:09 pm

      Sorry to answer so late, real life got in the way of blogging life. 🙂
      She’s interesting and I thought that Black Water Rising has everything I like in a good crime fiction book: good plot and interesting social commentary.


  3. August 17, 2021 at 9:41 am

    I love Attica’s books so I’m glad you enjoyed this one.


    • August 25, 2021 at 9:10 pm

      Very sorry to answer so late.

      Which other one would you recommend?


      • August 26, 2021 at 9:28 am

        I really like her Highway 59 series that started with Bluebird, Bluebird. The first book I read by her was The Cutting Season which led me to seek out others.


  4. August 19, 2021 at 9:04 am

    I’ve had my eye on her work as well, her books sound compelling.


    • August 25, 2021 at 9:12 pm

      Sorry for my very late answer.
      I’d be curious to read your thoughts about this one. I couldn’t put it down.


  5. buriedinprint
    September 7, 2021 at 4:54 pm

    I think I’ve said this before, elsewhere, but this is one of the very few crime novels that I elected to reread, just to pick up the series once more, but, then, I truly enjoyed the reread. It honestly felt just as satisfying on a second round…a rarity with crime fiction. Over the summer, I read The Cutting Season and it was just as good, different but so many aspects to enjoy and appreciate.


    • September 7, 2021 at 10:59 pm

      It is truly an excellent, I’ve already recommended it several times.


  6. September 8, 2021 at 8:16 pm

    Nice billet, Emma! I read this back when it first came out, when it was on the Orange Prize shortlist, and really enjoyed it. I’d mostly forgotten about it now, so thanks for refreshing my memory!


    • September 8, 2021 at 8:59 pm

      It’s a great book, even if it didn’t stay with you. Have you read any other book by her?


      • September 17, 2021 at 9:39 am

        No, I haven’t, although I’ve always meant to, and maybe I will now 🙂


        • September 19, 2021 at 7:09 am

          Buried In Print left recommendations in the comments, so…


  1. September 4, 2021 at 9:55 am

I love to hear your thoughts, thanks for commenting. Comments in French are welcome

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