This has been a veritable banner year for crime fiction by women. From Gillian Flynn’s mega-hit Gone Girl and Megan Abbott’s cheerleader noir Dare Me to Laura Lippman’s suburban madam suspense tale And When She Was Good, women have been leading the way with complex, character-rich stories very much rooted in the now, plumbing fears and anxieties that strike deeply in our hearts. Now add Locke’s exemplary sophomore novel The Cutting Season to that list, though she takes a different tack, mixing a terrific mystery and strong-willed woman’s life and work struggles with the lingering effects of 19th-century slavery.
Caren Gray works as the manager for the Belle Vie estate, a sumptuous former Louisiana plantation turned into a tourist destination, where actors recreate the past on a nightly basis. For Caren, who is raising a tween daughter alone, the job provides security and a refuge from the high-powered Washington life that broke up her marriage. But the plantation is rife with hauntings, arising from both a mysterious Civil War-era murder to Caren’s own childhood, which was spent at Belle Vie where her mother worked as a maid.
Then a body turns up that upends everything, and that incident has Locke showing her literary mettle. The interconnections between past and present happen effortlessly, and as seen through the prism of Caren’s own ambiguities, the reader sees how complex is the relationship between class and race.
Locke had impressed plenty, including me, with her debut Black Water Rising. One of those was the writer Dennis Lehane, who made The Cutting Season his inaugural pick for his new imprint. With this novel Locke shows how much she’s grown and just how far her talent could take her.