Title: The Cutting Season
Author: Attica Locke
Genre: Thriller, mystery
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Source: ARC from the publisher
First line: It was during the Thompson-Delacroix wedding, Caren’s first day on the job, that a cottonmouth, measuring the length of a Cadillac, fell some twenty feet from a live oak on the front lawn, landing like a coil of rope in the lap of the bride’s future mother-in-law.
Goodreads blurb: The American South in the twenty-first century. A plantation owned for generations by a rich family. So much history. And a dead body.
Just after dawn, Caren walks the grounds of Belle Vie, the historic plantation house in Louisiana that she has managed for four years. Today she sees nothing unusual, apart from some ground that has been dug up by the fence bordering the sugar can fields. Assuming an animal has been out after dark, she asks the gardener to tidy it up. Not long afterwards, he calls her to say it’s something else. Something terrible. A dead body. At a distance, she missed her. The girl, the dirt and the blood. Now she has police on site, an investigation in progress, and a member of staff no one can track down. And Caren keeps uncovering things she will wish she didn’t know. As she’s drawn into the dead girl’s story, she makes shattering discoveries about the future of Belle Vie, the secrets of its past, and sees, more clearly than ever, that Belle Vie, its beauty, is not to be trusted.
The Cutting Season could have easily been your typical whodunnit thriller: a dead body on an old plantation in the atmospheric South, a staff full of suspects, and a satisfying conclusion. If it had been, it would have been entertaining enough. Instead, Attica Locke has elevated the genre, including all of the necessary aspects of a thrilling mystery, joined by the deeper themes of race, motherhood, relationships, and – most of all – history.
As I read, it was easy for me to keep turning the pages, moving quickly through the story, from clue to clue, suspect to suspect – and the author kept me guessing until the end as to who was the villain of the piece. But as I read, I found myself drawn asmuch to the character of Caren Gray, and the position she held on the plantation, as I was to the mystery.
The plantation has been preserved as a historical monument, and Caren is in charge of the plantation operations, running tours, school field trips, and also hosting huge corporate events and weddings. Belle Vie is in her blood; her ancestors worked as slaves in the cane fields, and her mother worked as cook when she was a girl. A rupture in her relationship with her mother chased her away for a few years, but she is now back with her own daughter. When the murdered immigrant worker is found on the plantation grounds, Caren finds herself drawn into the investigation, becoming aware that her own family’s history may be more involved than she could ever have imagined. As she is carried along by the discoveries she is making, she is forced to deal with her own history: her relationship with her late mother, her role as a mother to her own daughter, her tenuous position as a black woman working for a white plantation-owning family, and her need for love and companionship.
I’ve said this in reviews before, and I’ll say it again: I love it when an author can manage to make the setting of a novel as real as any of the characters. Locke has done this with Belle Vie; it is full of the ghosts of its horrific history, and it simply oozes with menacing atmosphere. As Caren walked the grounds, I could picture the plantation in my mind, seeing the former slave quarters, the cane fields, the huge kitchen building separated from the main house. The fate of the plantation is tied up with Caren’s fate, and the author manages to keep the reader on tenterhooks about both until the last few pages.