****And So It Began (Delaney Book 1)

Child_beauty_pageant

photo: Lloyd Gallman, creative commons license

By Owen Mullen – Brave of a resident of Scotland and the Greek Islands to write a police procedural set in one of America’s most iconic cities, one with a strong and unique culture, history, and personality. Still, he’s chosen New Orleans for the first in his series featuring protagonist Vincent Delaney—former NOPD detective, now a private investigator.

For the most part the character of the Big Easy comes through in the details Mullen chooses to provide, though the deep trauma of Hurricane Katrina receives only a single mention. There’s maybe too little attention to food and the weather, some nice references to music (Delaney plays in a band), and directly related to the story, a reopening of the old wounds of NOPD corruption that have helped poison race relations in the city.

Delaney has three—make that four—issues on his hands. First is a background hazard in the form of Julian Boutte, a mentally deranged African American man whose brother Delaney killed a decade back when he was still an NOPD detective. Boutte has escaped from prison, and there’s no question that he plans to kill Delaney.

A group of African American small business people from the North Le Moyne area are having to pay protection money they can ill afford and seek Delaney’s help.

The third problem, and the one that takes up most of the book’s plot deals with a bizarre phenomenon of American life, the child beauty/talent pageant. Across the southern states, children who participate in these pageants are being murdered. One of the victims is a five-year-old boy, killed only minutes after winning with a memorable Charlie Chaplin imitation—inspiration for the paperback’s striking cover (below).

The FBI leads the investigation, but there are some 5000 such pageants in the US every year, and they cannot begin to cover them all, so bring in local help. Delaney’s niece is a pageant participant, which gives him an ideal opportunity to meet organizers, participants, obsessed parents, and, possibly, a killer.

While the culprit in Mullen’s tale is more obvious early on than the elusive true-life murderer of JonBenet Ramsey, still at large after twenty-one years, the child beauty pageant world is ripe for exploration. Mullen does a nice job highlighting the different motivations of several sets of parents and their young daughters.

If all these work challenges weren’t sufficient, Delaney has woman troubles, though he has a mostly good relationship with his sister and brother-in-law, as well as several friends still on the force. Mullen describes the interaction between Delaney and his family and friends warmly, and they feel real.

There are more books in the Delaney series to come, and especially if you like the New Orleans setting (I miss Treme!), they may just put the chickory in your coffee.

***Casting Bones

mardi-gras mask, New Orleans

photo: Larry Johnson, creative commons license

By Don Bruns – This is the first of a new series of police procedurals set in what the publisher calls “one of the most fascinating cities in the world: New Orleans.” Bruns—with five books in his Caribbean series and seven in the popular “Stuff” series—delights in the Big Easy’s atmosphere and culture in creating his backdrops, colorful cast of characters, and the shenanigans that take place. It’s a story that could take place only there, which is a real plus—like a visit without all the calories.

Disgraced former Detroit police detective Quentin Archer has relocated to Nawlins to restart his career. His ability to stay in Detroit floundered when he fingered a fellow Motor City cop—and, by the way, his two policeman brothers—for drug dealing. Suffice it to say, he’s a man who has to watch his back.

His interpersonal relations aren’t that much better in his new job. He can’t trust his partner, who admits to selling information about cases to unknown parties, and the mercurial sergeant in charge overtly dislikes the Detroit man. In the way of supervisors everywhere, he can make Archer’s life miserable and does.

When the body of a New Orleans juvenile court judge is found floating in the Mississippi River, the principal question on Archer’s mind is, Why? Why shoot Judge David Lerner? Was it because of his notoriously harsh sentences? Or did it have to do with the mysterious printouts found in the back of his Jag? Before any of these questions can be answered, in a bit of piling on,  two more judges are dead—one in a strange, possibly staged, motor vehicle accident, and the other in a mugging-gone-wrong.

In true New Orleans style, at least as much is hidden as is revealed. It’s as if the murky waters of the muddy Mississippi obscure the vision of the entire town, and no one seems to want the truth. Meanwhile, his partner—with the connivance of the higher-ups concerned about tourism—is on the verge of railroading a young black kitchen worker for Lerner’s death. Archer has only days to come up with an alternative scenario that sticks.

He finds help from an unusual ally when he encounters Solange Cordray, the beautiful daughter of a voodoo priestess. Because this is a multiple point-of-view novel, you read Cordray’s interpretation of events as well as Archer’s, his partner’s, and others’. It’s clear that her special knowledge of events past and future is not a cynical fabrication, and that, although what she perceives as messages from the spirits is not always clear, she sincerely believes them.

Some loose ends, especially regarding Archer’s Detroit woes, are not totally tied up by this book’s end, suggesting sequels to come. The publisher under-invested in proofreading, but, bottom line, this is a fast-paced read with great atmosphere and interesting characters and situations.

**The French Detective: A Novel of New Orleans in 1900

New Orleans, French Quarter

(photo: David Ohmer, Creative Commons license)

By O’Neil De Noux – A jambalaya of factors go into a reader’s enjoyment of a crime novel, and this one is definitely a (mostly) flavorful mix. De Noux has selected a time and place ripe for drama. New Orleans is consistently intriguing on many levels, most particularly for its diversity of strong cultures stewing together in the oppressive Louisiana heat. The time period, the turn of the last century, is filled with dramatic possibility, because of the city’s changing demographics and because of the real-life occurrence of the Robert Charles race riots, which De Noux draws into his story.

The challenges to New Orleans Police Detective Jacques Dugas begin when a four-year-old boy is kidnapped from the city’s Vieux Carré, at this point in its history an Italian and Sicilian district. Mostly recent immigrants, the residents have little use for the police and cooperation is scant, even when Dugas has the volunteer translating assistance of glamorous young Evelyn Dominici—Italian-speaking daughter of a Corsican jeweler and an English Lady. The Corsican is a New Orleans resident, but Lady Evelyn’s mother lives in England, ensconced in a drafty castle with her lover.

Dugas and his translator, rapidly falling for each other and flirting outrageously, pursue the many potential leads in the case until the investigation is derailed by the riots. The book is populated with white supremacists, Italian citizens committees, Sicilian mafia, Irish cops, and, always at the fringes, the blacks and the poor. Jambalaya. One delicious aspect of the book is how often Dugas, Evelyn Dominici, and their colleagues must stop to eat. Reading this book is enough to make the reader put on five pounds by literary osmosis.

Yet all is not well-served in this literary endeavor. This is a self-published book, which to me means the author-as-publisher takes on extra responsibilities. While De Noux attempts to absolve himself from any errors via a note saying “If you found a typo or two in the book, please don’t hold it against us. We are a small group of volunteers . . .” There are many, many more than a typo or two. The writer’s role, as John Gardner had it, is to create a fictional dream in which writer and reader are co-conspirators. Keep the dream going, and the reader continues to believe in the story created. Tyops wake you up.

Such lack of attention cannot help but make the reader wonder about the care expended on plot, characterization, and other literary matters. In this book, the plot raced hither and yon so often, I occasionally lost the thread, and it left loose ends (who wrote all those notes?). The character of Evelyn was, to me, unbelievable in her liberated attitudes for a woman of that era and an English Lady, no less. Nor was the attention devoted to the attractiveness of her figure interesting on a sustained basis.

Nevertheless, I actually enjoyed this book on its own terms, as a window into a pivotal time in one of America’s most fascinating cities.

A longer version of this review is available here on the Crime Fiction Lover website.