The Cutting Season is a brilliant mystery novel.

The dead weight of slavery hangs over American society to this day, and Attica Locke has found the perfect way to explore its impact on us in her second mystery novel, The Cutting Season. The novel is set on a plantation in Louisiana where history is brought back to life through a staged reenactment of ante-bellum life. There, the great-great-great-granddaughter of a slave who had gone missing shortly after the Civil War is now employed as the manager of the plantation. Locke connects the disappearance to the contemporary murder of a migrant worker through the manager’s involvement in both mysteries. The tale is suspenseful, evocative of a terrible time long past, and artfully written.

A brilliant mystery novel that explores the heritage of slavery

Caren Gray lives at Belle Vie with her nine-year-old daughter, Morgan. The girl’s father had left for a job with Senator Barack Obama in Chicago and later moved with him to Washington. He and Caren had met at Tulane Law, which he finished but she didn’t. She had dropped out because she could no longer afford it. Now, at Belle Vie, she manages a staff of actors, a cook and kitchen staff, and others to serve tourists and schoolchildren and host weddings and high-end parties in the lush setting of the plantation. It is in some ways an idyllic life, but the calm is brutally upset when a young woman’s body is found on the periphery of the estate. And Caren herself becomes a suspect in the woman’s murder.

The Cutting Season by Attica Locke (2012) 417 pages @@@@@ (5 out of 5)

Racism in many forms permeates this engrossing story

From the perspective of the local police, the most likely suspect is a young African-American man who works on the plantation as an actor. Donovan Isaacs has a police record, and it appears he is lying about whether he had been at the plantation on the night when the woman was murdered. (“He was a twenty-two-year-old kid, undereducated and overentitled, of a generation long out of the shadow of the hard work that had made a life like his possible.”)

However, as Caren explores the circumstances of the killing, she comes to believe that the murderer is the manager of the neighboring sugarcane plantation which abuts Belle Vie’s land — and in fact leases the land it farms from the owners of Belle Vie. Unfortunately, as the police distrust Caren as well, they’re determined to prosecute Donovan. And only Caren’s own dangerous investigation into the murder stands a chance of freeing him.

In the course of Caren’s inquiry, facts about the disappearance of her great-great-great grandfather come to light. And, yes, there is a powerful connection between Jason’s fate and that of the young migrant worker whose body anchors this tale. That connection, and Locke’s insightful treatment of her characters, makes this a truly brilliant mystery novel.

About the author

The Cutting Season was the second of the five novels Attica Locke has published to date. She has won literary awards for most of them, including the Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America for Bluebird, Bluebird. Locke was born in Houston but now lives in Los Angeles with her husband and daughter.

For additional reading

I’ve also reviewed two other Attica Locke novels:

You might also be interested in:

For an abundance of great mystery stories, go to Top 20 suspenseful detective novels (plus 200 more). And if you’re looking for exciting historical novels, check out Top 10 historical mysteries and thrillers reviewed here (plus 100 others).

And you can always find my most popular reviews, and the most recent ones, plus a guide to this whole site, on the Home Page.