"I think I get away with a lot of political stuff," says Attica Locke, "because of the presence of a dead body. If you have familiar signposts along the way — this is when the cops get called, this is when we tell the girl's parents — readers get comfortable, and then you can slide in all this other material."
It's noon on a Friday, and Locke is in the lounge of the Langham Huntington in Pasadena. A pianist plays softly around the corner as the author discusses the role of social issues in her novels, which position themselves as thrillers, then open up into a larger world.
Her first, "Black Water Rising," which came out in 2009 and was nominated for both an Edgar and the Orange Prize, revolves around Jay Porter, a veteran of the civil rights movement turned small-time attorney, 30, with a pregnant wife and a past as an activist once tried for attempted murder. Her second, 2012's "The Cutting Season," takes on a murder with historical implications at a Louisiana plantation turned high-end event space. For the last year, Locke has also been a writer and producer on the Fox drama "Empire," which addresses, in its own way, a related set of themes.
Now, she has returned to Jay Porter with her third novel, "Pleasantville" (Harper: 432 pp., $26.99), which picks up 15 years after "Black Water Rising," as the lawyer finds himself suddenly and against his will enmeshed in the political and legal drama surrounding a 1996 Houston mayoral campaign.
"I was profoundly resistant to the idea of a sequel," Locke admits. "I was scared people would want the same experience they'd had in the first book. I couldn't deliver the same thing."
Locke needn't have worried — or perhaps it was the worry that kept her from repeating herself. Either way, what makes "Pleasantville" distinct is that gap of a decade and a half. The years haven't been kind to Jay, now a widower raising a young son, Ben, and a teenage daughter, Ellie. His primary case, representing the upscale African American enclave of Pleasantville in a suit over a chemical fire, has grown so stagnant that his clients are defecting.
His office is the target of a mysterious break-in. On election night, an 18-year-old poll worker goes missing in the community, and Jay is brought in to represent the suspect, the campaign manager for the first black candidate to seek election to Houston's mayoralty.
That's a lot of threads, a lot of story lines, but as in "Black Water Rising" and "The Cutting Season," this is part of the point. Indeed, one of Locke's intentions for the novel is to illuminate "the paradox of progress," a phrase (borrowed from sociologist Orlando Patterson) she uses to describe the fragmentation of black political power as core communities and coalitions split. Pleasantville is one such landscape: a middle-class development of the 1940s, when African Americans were not welcome in other neighborhoods.
"You don't want to live in an America that created Pleasantville," Locke declares. "And yet, progress, racial progress, has fractured what was a really special place." This sense of a community in transition becomes a significant component of the narrative. "To me," she continues, "the idea of losing concentrated black voting power as a bittersweet coda to the civil rights movement matters every day."
Locke comes by such intentions organically; her parents are former activists who named her after the 1971 prison uprising. "My mom," she says, "was very clear that my name was a message, that I was to see the humanity in everybody."
Like Jay, Locke's father stood trial in the early 1970s before becoming a criminal defense lawyer; he served as Houston's city attorney and ran for mayor in 2009. "It was one of the most painful experiences of my life," she says of the campaign, although those bitter memories led to "Pleasantville."
"I went to Houston in October 2009 from the Oak Alley Plantation [in Louisiana], where I was researching 'The Cutting Season,'" she remembers. "I put on a Locke for Mayor T-shirt, I'm riding around and it's like driving through 'Black Water Rising' 30 years after the fact. It was union guys and black preachers and metro reporters and oilmen. I was at a stop light with my sister, and I said, 'This is a book.'"
As for where Locke goes from here, it's not certain. Her work on "Empire" is, in some sense, a return to her roots, since she moved to Los Angeles in the 1990s to work in Hollywood, after a fellowship at the Sundance Institute's Feature Filmmakers Lab, and spent a decade writing scripts.
"I came out here to be a movie director," she says. "I came out of the Sundance lab with a movie deal. I was location scouting when they said, 'Oh, we're actually not going to make this, we decided no.' There was a black female lead, so that meant there were only two people at the time who could open it. Also, there were black and white people together in the movie, so who is it for? What I heard was: 'There's not a business model for who you are.'"
Of course, Hollywood is currently doing one of its periodic dances with diversity. Either way, Locke is where she wants to be.
"I was born on the other side of the [civil rights] movement," Locke reflects, "and one of the tragedies of that period has been a move from political progress to economic progress as the answer. At the same time, just look at what's happened in the last 18 months: Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, Eric Garner, Michael Brown. My optimism says their deaths are like a boil coming up on America's skin, because you can't treat something you cannot see. My hope for my books, or for a show like 'Empire,' is that people will see [these characters] and see a son, a brother, a friend."
Locke will appear at the Festival of Books on April 18.