A departure from my usual interests, Attica Locke’s The Cutting Season is a quiet mystery/thriller with a tightly woven and simple premise. Set in the Louisiana South of present day, this is a novel with moral implications about race and power. The murder of a wage laborer serves as narrative device to critically outline how the present use of immigrant labor is part of the historical heritage of an area once buoyed by slave labor. The novel goes about presenting this theme in a straightforward fashion: in essence this is a light and easy-going read that won’t shock the reader’s worldview by any means. It reads like a script to a movie and satisfies like a Wednesday evening crime drama that relaxes the mind, but will be forgotten by week’s end.
Caren Gray (no relation to the 50 shades genre) is a law school drop out raising her daughter on the grounds of the property she manages, a Louisiana plantation called Belle Vie. The plantation is a historical landmark visited by tourists and used by the elite for weddings and special events. Caren’s great-great grandfather was a slave on the plantation and her family has had close ties with the wealthy and aristocratic landowners that run the place. All seems idyllic until the body of a woman mysteriously appears on the grounds. The woman was a laborer at the neighboring sugarcane plantation run by a corporate agribusiness called Groveland. Caren runs into some trouble after she destroys some evidence she found in the form of blood on her daughter’s shirt and since she wants to avoid charges for obstructing justice she becomes engaged in investigating the murder herself to attempt to clear the name of the police’s prime suspect, who is one of her staff. We learn that the Belle Vie property owner, Raymond Clancy plans to run for senate as well as sell the Belle Vie property to Groveland as a bid to promote increased sugarcane production and thus “create jobs” for the Louisiana economy. Amidst all of this, Caren discovers a long forgotten mystery regarding the disappearance and suspected murder of her great-great grandfather.
Without spoiling the plot, I’ll say that its ending is less than satisfying and predictable. When I closed the final page I was neither disgusted nor surprised. The feeling I had was that I passed some time reading and no more. For some people, all they desire is some entertainment as a distraction, and I have no qualms with that. The Cutting Season isn’t poorly written, it actually flows quite nicely and I feel that many people will enjoy it for what it is, a thriller to pass the time. I on the other hand, enjoy a book that offers insight or renewed referential knowledge and there was little of that to be found here.
What I will acknowledge as compelling about this book is that it gave me a renewed perspective as a reader. I say that with a slight of hand: I now know how women readers feel when they read male authors who don’t know how to write a convincing female character because in The Cutting Season Attica Locke has failed to provide a convincing male lead. The male character Eric, Caren’s baby-daddy, is a totally flat and unconvincing male role. He, unlike Caren, is a successful Lawyer who lives in DC working for the Obama administration (as an aside, this is the second novel that I have read that was published in 2012 with characters having close ties to Obama. I don’t know what that says about the trends for the times, but it hints at some nervousness about the coming elections) who despite being engaged with a wedding scheduled just two weeks away, drops everything to come to Louisiana to emotionally support his ex and his daughter. The dynamic between Caren and Eric is not real-world human interaction. There is no struggle, the choices that Eric makes are imagined and contrived with no resulting guilt as a consequence of actions taken. Ladies, is this what it is like to read a one dimensional, male-created, female character? If it is, I now understand your disappointment with the male literary cannon.
This is Attica Locke’s second novel and her resume is more reliant on her background in film and television than as a novelist. As I alluded above, the novel is reminiscent of a television drama and perhaps Ms. Locke’s background in writing for film has affected her ability to flesh out her characters with an over-reliance on the actor’s ability to portray the character’s complexity. In a novel, the actors are present only in the words on the page and therefore only the mind’s imagining can provide the depth of humanity that is required of a compelling character. In this novel it isn’t just Eric who is lacking depth: there is Raymond, the stereotypical word-bending politician, his drunk and distant brother, the over-zealous reporter, the hard balled detective, and so on. Everyone has a role and there is little complexity in each of their parts.