The Cutting Season is a traditional mystery with hints of the gothic by Attica Locke (available September 18, 2012).
Caren Gray is the general manager of Belle Vie, a sprawling antebellum plantation 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 reenactments and carefully restored slave quarters. Outside the gates, an ambitious corporation has been busy snapping up land from struggling families who have grown sugar cane for generations, 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. The list of suspects is long, but when the cops zero in on a person of interest, Caren has a feeling they’re chasing the wrong leads. Putting herself at risk, she unearths startling new facts about an old mystery—the long-ago disappearance of a former slave—that has unsettling ties to the modern-day crime. In pursuit of the truth about Belle Vie’s history—and her own—Caren discovers secrets about both cases that an increasingly desperate killer will do anything to keep hidden.
I really, really enjoyed The Cutting Season by Attica Locke as a mystery. Even more, I enjoyed it as a novel about the social and economic tensions of contemporary southern Louisiana, arising from almost two centuries of trying to recover from what was once a slave economy, the cultivation of sugar cane. Sugar cane is still a very labor-intensive crop, so the story was complicated by the presence of corporations hiring illegal immigrants as workers and then treating them badly, which of course resonated strongly with the slavery-era past.
I was especially interested in the main setting of the story, a plantation-turned-historical-site called Belle Vie. The protagonist, Caren Gray, is the general manager for the plantation, including both its educational programming and the events, such as weddings, that are frequently held there. The quotidian details of her job fascinated me.
[Donovan’s] salary, like those of the other Belle Vie Players, was paid by a yearly stipend from the state’s Department of Culture, Recreation, and Tourism, which made firing him a bureaucratic headache, but one she was no less committed to pursuing. But that was later, of course. Right now she needed a stand-in for the part of FIELD SLAVE #1. She was about a heartbeat away from making a call to the theater department at Donaldsonville High School, willing to settle for a warm body, at least, when finally, at a quarter to seven, Ennis Mabry returned one of her messages, saying he had a nephew who could take over Ennis’s role as Monsieur Duquesne’s trusty DRIVER, and Ennis could step in to play Donovan’s part, which, he assured her, he knew by heart. “Don’t worry, Miss C,” he said. “The kids’ll have they show.”
The daily staffing and event client frustrations which Caren must face seem much smaller, however, in the face of the site’s significance not only as United States history, but personal history to many of those who live in the area. Caren herself is the descendent of a slave on Belle Vie, and because of this she feels discomfort about her job.
Caren gave the cabin a quick survey: straw pallet on the dirt floor; antique field tools hanging from rusty nails on the walls; a pine table with a tin cup and a kettle resting atop; a broom of twigs and brush; and a crudely made bench with a threadbare quilt lying on one end. It was neat and clean and ready for showing. Caren backed out, ducking her head beneath a low beam. The others were all the same: four leaning walls beneath sagging, shingled roofs, each with an open doorway but no actual door, and out front a tiny, square patch of dirt and weeds where vegetables and wildflowers once grew—a historical fact which Raymond Clancy had pointedly refused to re-create, even in a nod to verisimilitude, for fear of being accused of painting too pretty a picture of slave life, of being called an apologist or worse.
The influence of the past on the present is a major theme throughout the novel, at first subtly, and then much more directly. The murdered woman found in the first pages, one of the migrant workers, is not directly equated with slaves who died on the same land before the Civil War, but there are clear resonances and connections between them that provide an intriguing exploration of the complicated contemporary social landscape. At the same time, Caren must reconsider her feelings about Belle Vie, where she grew up, and whether she should stay there or leave and seek a new kind of life.
The Cutting Season is one of the most complex and interesting books I’ve read in a while!
Victoria Janssen is the author of three novels and numerous short stories. Her World War I-set Spice Brief, “Under Her Uniform,” is a tie-in to her novel The Moonlight Mistress. Follow her on Twitter: @victoriajanssen or find out more at victoriajanssen.com.
Read all posts by Victoria Janssen for Criminal Element.