FORTY ACRES is one of the most interesting thrillers published in 2014 thus far. I will confess/admit that I was not excited for its prospects when I first picked it up. The driving force of the plot seemed a bit far-fetched and difficult to carry off over the course of a novel. I was wrong. The book starts off strongly and never flags for a moment, from its opening sentence to its gut-clenching ending.
Debut novelist Dwayne Alexander Smith is primarily known as a screenwriter, and he transfers the skills he has honed creating video work to book medium. What we get is short (for the most part) chapters that keep things moving right along and just enough principal and supporting characters to make the story interesting without the necessity of a scorecard. The most important of these is a driven yet likable attorney named Martin Grey who, with his partner and best friend, Glen Grossman, has what amounts to a storefront legal practice, taking civil rights cases and compiling a decent record of wins, though nothing spectacular.
"FORTY ACRES is one of the most interesting thrillers published in 2014 thus far.... The book starts off strongly and never flags for a moment, from its opening sentence to its gut-clenching ending."
The fortunes of Grey and the law firm change dramatically when Grey takes on a mega-corporation defended by Damon Darrell, a superstar attorney whose courtroom skills are legendary and considered all but unbeatable. It is a classic David and Goliath situation, made all the more interesting for the media circus with both attorneys, as well as the plaintiff, being black. When Grey pulls off an upset win on behalf of his wronged client, it results in great publicity for the firm, along with a surprising offer from Darrell, his vanquished adversary. Darrell invites Grey and his wife to a small dinner party where the other guests are all CEOs, media kings, and multi-million-dollar entrepreneurs. They are also black --- not necessarily a surprising element --- and while the conversation is friendly, Grey gets the feeling during the course of the evening that he is being evaluated and judged.
In short order, Grey is invited to a weekend getaway for what is supposed to be a whitewater rafting trip in Washington State. What it becomes is an initiation into an isolated compound known as Forty Acres, where the institution of slavery is still practiced, but with one important difference. Grey, a decent man to the core of his being, is appalled by what he beholds, but has no idea what to do about it. Forced to mask his true feelings, he must somehow escape the place and, if possible, rescue the poor unfortunates held prisoner there. But how? And at what cost to his wife, who is waiting back home with some news of her own, even as, unbeknownst to her, she is in deadly straits?
FORTY ACRES works on several levels. It is, as intended, a terrific thriller, full of building suspense and a grand climax that unfolds over the countdown of a virtual ticking clock. It is also an interesting, though by no means heavy, social treatise that deals with uncomfortable truths that are rarely mentioned, if at all. The acknowledgement of the existence of racism on the part of blacks permeates the book, as does the occasional discussion of something that the author, through one of the fascinating characters in the book, refers to as “black noise,” an unidentifiable element that is nonetheless felt by some to exist and act as an impediment to the advancement of the black race worldwide. Smith should get props just for addressing this topic here, as well as for the fact that the social and political issues raised in the story provide plenty of intellectual grist without dragging the fast-moving plot down in the slightest.
As a result, FORTY ACRES is one of those rare novels that deserves to jump directly to the top of your reading list.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on August 1, 2014