In Susan Straight's energetic fourth novel, the phrase "the gettin' place" has two distinct meanings. The first is a smart-ass comeback to the accusatory question, "Where you get that, boy?" Secondly and more importantly, it refers to where her characters house what they need to survive in a tough world. In this tale of an extended black family living in a suburban ghetto called Treetown -- it's south of the fictional town of Rio Seco, California -- survival is a daily struggle. Hosea Thompson, the silent patriarch of the Thompson clan and survivor of the 1921 Tulsa riots, wakes one morning to find two white women murdered and burning inside a car on his property. When another body is found on Thompson's land, it becomes clear that "someone wants us in jail, then he don't care if we all kill each other off."
From there the novel becomes a complex, tangled saga of Thompson family history that leads, eventually, toward the resolution of the murder mystery. Along the way, Straight brings this family to life with a delicate eye for detail. There's Mortrice, the grandson (and gang member) who breaks down guns; Marcus, an alleged white wannabe, or "Oreo," who lives in the gentrified downtown but retains his irony ("Urban renewal. Negro removal.") There's also Fins, who lost his brain to a PCP-laced Kool cigarette and communicates via lyrics from '70s funk songs.
Straight's white characters aren't painted with such careful strokes. From Bent -- a Bostonian yuppie journalist who likes old blues -- to a variety of evil politicians and land developers, stereotypes abound. That's a minor sticking point, though, compared to the novel's disappointing "suspense" narrative. The early suspect -- an obvious and cliched choice, like the first arrest in a TV crime drama -- leads you to believe Straight has a surprise waiting in the wings. Unfortunately the only shock is that the climax coincides with some (very) heavy-handed help from the Rodney King riots. The emotional charge of Straight's fictional payload -- and her fascinating characters -- doesn't deserve this kind of forced, straight-out-of-Hollywood ending.