Jay Porter is an African-American attorney living in oil-rich Houston, Texas in the early 1980s. He deals mostly in small civil cases, but Jay is far from the stereotypical wealthy, flashy lawyer. He also struggles with his past. His father was killed before Jay was born, a victim of racial violence. Jay was active in the civil rights movement in the late 1960s, and in 1970 he was arrested and served time in jail before being acquitted. One night, Jay and his wife Bernie are out on a boat — a special treat for Bernie’s birthday — and they rescue a woman from the water. A few days later, Jay learns the woman was likely involved in a crime. As a black man with an arrest record, Jay is rightly afraid of becoming involved, and decides not to contact the police to share what he knows.
But he can’t help himself from doing a bit of amateur sleuthing. As Jay digs into the story behind the rescued woman, he uncovers a web of corporate greed and corruption. And clearly, someone wants Jay out of the way: a man driving a black Ford LTD keeps turning up and threatening him. As the situation escalates and becomes increasingly violent, it also becomes clear — to the reader, if not to Jay — that no one can be trusted.
On the surface, this is a pretty good crime thriller. Many have questioned why this book was nominated for the 2010 Orange Prize. Attica Locke brings 1980s Houston to life, showing how an entire region depended on a single industry. But she also exposes deep-seated societal issues, including labor relations and racism, which bring richness and depth to this story, setting it apart from more routine works in this genre.