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[2010 Edgar Award nominee for Best First Novel By An American Author—see reviews of other 2010 Edgar noms here.]

Author: Attica Locke

Harper, 2009

Filed under: Mystery

Black Water Rising is a novel with two frustratingly unconnected story lines that are given almost equal weight. The primary narrative concerns a young black lawyer named Jay trying to carve out a law practice in early ’80s Houston. He and his wife go for a low-rent swamp cruise on their anniversary, they witness a crime, and they try to help a young woman running from a gunman. They drop her off at the police station and eventually a mystery unfurls.

The secondary narrative, interspersed with the first, is about Jay’s history with the SNCC (pronounced “snik”), a civil rights group in the ’60s that eventually split between proponents of nonviolent action, and Black Power-type followers of Stokely Carmichael.

One big problem with Rising is that these two discrete story lines have almost nothing to do with each other. The other, bigger problem, is that both are quite boring.

It’s clear that Locke is interested and invested in the history of the civil rights movement. That’s well and good, but the SNCC sections are approximately one notch less interesting than reading the Wikipedia articles about SNCC and Stokely Carmichael. More damningly, none of that civil rights background has anything to do with the present-day plotline, which is about union politics and oil money.

Race is involved in the present-day plot, and Jay knows the mayor from her days in SNCC, but implying that makes for a connection is like saying every murder that happens in America has to be given context by discussing Christopher Columbus. Some flashbacks are certainly needed to establish Jay’s character, but giving half the book to them—and then never tying the events of those flashbacks to anything current—it comes off feeling like a waste of time.

A far worse flaw, though, is the unending boredom of the present-day gunman/young woman mystery. Much of that boredom can be attributed to the fact that Jay is a big fat wuss. Locke gives us plenty of excuses for Jay’s wussiness: a relatively minor arrest from his SNCC days, the racism of the police, the way Jay’s father was murdered in a race killing, and Jay’s worry for his pregnant wife. I believe his wussiness, and his anxiety is certainly justified, but he’s still not very satisfying as a character, especially as the protagonist of a mystery.

To make matters worse, Locke bases the premise of the novel on Jay’s unwillingness to get involved, so we know relatively early on that the thematic throughline will be Jay’s journey toward finally actually doing something. It’s a nice idea, but watching Jay drag his feet for two-thirds of the book doesn’t make for compelling drama.

The few times he does act, Jay’s never willing to truly put himself or anything he loves at risk, and so the suspense never gets its hooks in. Jay spends most of his time politicking, and a good portion of the third act watching a trial. Not exactly the stuff thrillers are made of.

As far as language, Locke’s prose is mediocre, and her dialogue is underwhelming, especially taking into account her background as a screenwriter. There simply isn’t much enjoyment to be had from this book.

There are, however, a couple lessons to be learned. First, a cause, no matter how righteous, is not enough to float a mystery. I’d be much more willing to watch Locke’s upcoming HBO miniseries on civil rights than to read another book that crams in an ideology where it doesn’t fit.

Second, mysteries don’t necessarily need to be driven by plots, but their plots must be engaging and suspenseful, and their protagonists have to be active participants. Without that, we’re left with a bag full of good intentions, and those don’t feed the baby.

Keep an eye out for Locke’s civil rights miniseries, but go somewhere else for your mystery needs.

Similar books: As far as mysteries driven by righteous causes go, Rising weighs in at the weak end of the scale, down by Stieg Larsson’s two novels, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and The Girl Who Played with Fire. Andrew Vachss is still holding down the strong end with his Burke series.

Edgar impact: Even the featured Washington Post review at Rising‘s Amazon page is harshly critical. That doesn’t bode well for its chances at the award. Simply not enough suspense for my taste.