Gwen Moffat lives in Cumbria. Her novels are set in remote communities ranging from the Hebrides to the American West. The crimes fit their environment, swelling that dreadful record of sin in the smiling countryside cited by Sherlock Holmes. The style echoes this: rustic charm masking horror.
Politics, says the blurb, and these politics are green like the dollars on the jacket: the cash involved in withholding compensation for bad air, bad water and toxic fires that the black denizens of Pleasantville endured for decades, conditions that white neighbourhoods wouldn’t have tolerated for a week.
It was Jay Porter, the young lawyer of Black Water Rising, who spearheaded the fights against the mega-companies and won compensation which he is still struggling to get. Now tired, middle-aged and broke, his wife lost to cancer, a single father of two, he is running on empty as a new campaign rages in which he has no interest.
One of Pleasantville’s leaders, Axel Hathorne, ex-police chief and son of Sam, a founding member of the community, is tipped to become the first black mayor of Houston when a girl, ostensibly canvassing for him, disappears. When her body is found, Neal, Axel’s nephew, is charged with her murder. He has no alibi, no defence, and his involvement jeopardises his uncle’s crucial campaign. Sam, the paterfamilias, bamboozles Jay Porter, who has never conducted a murder trial, into defending his grandson.
The mayoral campaign stumbles on, the girl’s death seemingly lost in politicking although there has to be a suspicion that she is a part of it. The opposition fights dirty, the second candidate and her manager both formidable women, ruthless and amoral. In this book the characters rule the action particularly the Hathorne family headed by Sam, the patriarch, who has groomed son and grandson for power, the one pushed through law school, the other aimed for Houston and more, Sam’s eyes on the White House. There are shades of the Kennedys here but the Hathorne dynasty sported a black sheep in “A.G. Hats”, father of Neal. He went his own way, became a celebrated blues musician, sank in a welter of drugs and alcohol, and surfaced, currently employed as cleaner in a bar.
And Jay’s friends are happily flawed: Eddie Mae, his assistant, fat, clever, guzzler, boozer, guardian angel; Rolly with his fleet of hire cars: not averse to sharp practices, loyal to the death; Lonnie the redundant journalist with a brain like a computer and a thwart love life. And there is Jay himself who, unable to obtain the sums quoted in compensation for his abused clients, makes up the difference from his own pocket.
The murder trial is a literary climax: neat and satisfactory, balanced nicely by confrontation and resolution. No fireworks but a well-constructed plot enlivened by its characters. Nothing bizarre or implausible, only telling it like it is: dirty dealing and treachery carried to extremes by powerful people using others as pawns.