Black Water Rising is a story inspired by real events from the lives of the parents of debutant author Attica Locke. This is made clear by a rather charming note from Locke that closes her triumphant first novel but nobody who had reached that far into Black Water Rising will have been surprised by it. Locke's narrative carries such raw power from beginning to end that it could only have come from somewhere deep inside.
Locke, long-listed for the 2010 Orange Prize, starts her story with her parents' tale, crusing down Houston's Buffalo Bayou on a celebratory evening out when a disturbance on the bank attracts the attention of those on deck. In Black Water Rising, struggling black lawyer Jay Porter hears gun shots from a notorious nearby neighbourhood, followed shortly afterwards by cries of help come from a woman in the water. Like Locke's father, Porter faces a brief but profound dilemma on the deck. Should he mind his own business - as his instincts tell him to - and let the woman drown or intervene and perhaps save her life?
Porter dives in and shortly afterwards emerges from the black depths of the bayou with a white woman. Without learning much more about her he later drops the woman at a police station, taking off quickly to avoid any potential run in with "the long creative arm of Southern law enforcement". This is a telling line, capturing both Porter's rampant and destructive paranoia but also the very real danger for a black man in trouble with the law in a town like Houston in 1984.
During that moment of indecision on the boat it was not the water that scared Porter, nor the prospect of more gun shots, but simply getting involved and placing himself and the delicate balance of his life into the unpredictable jeopardy inherent in a racist and corrupt establishment.
Porter, we learn gradually, is an ex-con, a man persecuted and eventually prosecuted for his earlier involvement in the civil rights movement. He has rebuilt his life around his stoical, pregnant wife Bernie and a legal career he hopes will propel him right into the centre of oil-rich Houston's number one activity: making money.
But just as he feared it would, interfering in somebody else's probably criminal business unleahes upon him a tidal wave of trouble, and try as he might he cannot keep out of it, just as he cannot avoid involvement in a labor dispute at Houston's busy port when his father-in-law asks him to intervene on behalf of black union men preparing to strike for equal pay and opportunity.
When a man turns up dead in car parked close to where Porter heard shots, he cannot help but investigate himself, to ensure he is not implicated in any way. But this paranoia drags him further into trouble, just as his inability to say no to his father throws him into the political arena, a stage he hoped was long left behind him.
What he finds there is a tangled seething mass of corruption, greed and discrimination and a ruthless determination on the part of politicians, businessmen, labor unions and workers to pursue them all, whatever the cost to others. Porter faces another choice: turn his back or fight for what he believes is right.
It is a taut and gripping story. It is a murder mystery, and a very good one, but more than that it skilfully weaves between politics, civil rights, race and crime and in doing so exposes the rotting underbelly of a town on the make.
At its heart is Porter, one of the most memorable and complex characters I have read in some time. He is a mass of contradictions. The activist who wants a quiet life. The family man who chases trouble and excitement. If Bernie is his anchor, then his past life, of rallies and direct action, rips away at that chain , trying to pull him back under. In public, Porter is confident, articulate and powerful. But in private he cannot reveal himself to his wife and cannot find refuge from his own fears.
Porter followed me around for days after I completed Black Water Rising. His world is scary and claustrophobic - a society where one's access to justice or health care or a career or merely a quiet life is predicated on the colour of one's skin. Of course, intellectually I know that such places exist and at times, such as 1984 in the South, it was a good deal worse than now. But understanding it intellectually and feeling it emotionally, as I did with Porter, is entirely different. That is the triumph of Attica Locke.
If you read three books this year, make Black Water Rising one of them.