“Caren Gray manages Belle Vie, a sprawling antebellum plantation that sits between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, where the past and the present coexist uneasily. The estate’s owners have turned the place into an eerie tourist attraction, complete with full-dress re-enactments and carefully restored slave quarters. Outside the gates, a corporation with ambitious plans has been busy snapping up land from struggling families who have been growing sugar cane for generations, and now replacing local employees with illegal laborers. Tensions mount when the body of a female migrant worker is found in a shallow grave on the edge of the property, her throat cut clean.
As the investigation gets under way, the list of suspects grows. But when fresh evidence comes to light and the sheriff’s department zeros in on a person of interest, Caren has a bad feeling that the police are chasing the wrong leads. Putting herself at risk, she ventures into dangerous territory as she unearths startling new facts about a very old mystery—the long-ago disappearance of a former slave—that has unsettling ties to the current murder. In pursuit of the truth about Belle Vie’s history and her own, Caren discovers secrets about both cases—ones that an increasingly desperate killer will stop at nothing to keep buried.”
Thoughts: Attica Locke’s The Cutting Season is a thrilling and yet highly emotional murder mystery that leaves a reader satisfied and yet emotionally bereft. Caren Gray’s search for the truth has the feel of catharsis in it, as Ms. Locke uses Caren’s emotional confusion about her past to find her own resolutions. The resulting emotional roller coaster enhances the mystery and creates a strong connection between Caren and the reader.
What strikes a reader the most upon starting The Cutting Season is just how close the past is to the present in the South. Everything about the location of the novel and the characters in the novel are designed to highlight the ties that continue to bind people together 150 years later. Belle Vie, in all its restored glory, is only the physical embodiment of this connection and represents the difficulties Southerners continue to have with reconciling their ancestor’s actions. Northern readers will be particularly fascinated by the long-lasting relationship Caren has with her employer’s family as the ties that bind are typically not that long or not that well-known north of the Mason-Dixon line.
The one fault a reader may have with The Cutting Season is Caren’s actions towards uncovering the truth. As admirable as they are, they are also highly improbable. The stereotypically clueless sheriff who quickly draws conclusions and fails to investigate the story is a fetid plot device that is not worthy of such an intense and well-written drama. One understands the point about today’s race relations that Ms. Locke is trying to make without having to resort to such an overused story element, and that entire portion of the story leaves a rather bitter taste in the mouth of a reader.
The Cutting Season is a taut whodunit that stretches the boundaries of a traditional murder mystery with its confluence of past and present. Ms. Locke admirably admonishes current generations for glorifying an appalling period in history while recognizing the complex relationships people will continue to have with their past regardless of how society approaches the details. Belle Vie is at once appealing and macabre with its full-dress reenactments and completely restored slave quarters, and there is no shortage of irony as Caren struggles to come to grips with her own familial history while continuing to serve the family who owned her family members. The Cutting Season will appeal to mystery lovers and to historical fiction fans alike with the long-lasting bonds that continue to tie southern whites to their African-American neighbors.
Acknowledgments: Thank you to Danielle Plafsky from HarperCollins for my review copy!