The Lower Quarter by Elise Blackwell, Unbridled Books, $16.95 softcover
A body is found in a hotel room in New Orleans just before Hurricane Katrina hits. It’s a homicide, but police are understandably distracted.
A big storm is on the way and a homicide in New Orleans, well, that is not so unusual. What’s different is that two paintings are found with the body. The pair of moderately valuable works had been reported missing decades earlier. A third painting stolen at the same time is still missing, but now the people looking for it know where to look.
That has to wait until after the storm, which is when this dark tale of revenge, recovery, politics, power and wealth begins.
Blackwell, who grew up in south Louisiana and went to LSU, knows her setting well. Her descriptions of the molding, decaying, nearly deserted city are nearly as painful to read and remember as they were to see 10 years ago: “Water stains bloomed on the walls like flat moss, and moisture coated the floorboards, staining the wood darker.” The plot — not really a whodunit but more of a where-is-it — is advanced in chapters told in the voices of four main characters.
Johanna, a former victim of human trafficking from Eastern Europe, has found a life in the lower Quarter restoring art. She has lots of work to do after the storm as wealthy New Orleanians look to repair their damaged paintings.
Marion is a waitress in a bar across from Johanna’s shop. She is a painter, an artist who works to support her art, but has many life issues trailing behind her, including a drug addict brother who has squandered her inheritance. She also has a secret life as a sex worker, a dominatrix in the subterranean New Orleans S&M culture. It’s in that last capacity that she meets Clay.
Clay, the son of a wealthy uptown family, has daddy issues. He is also an acquaintance of Johanna from Europe. Clay’s father was ambassador to Belgium. He has wronged Johanna in the past and feels he owes a debt to her he can never repay.
Elizam is a Puerto Rican artist who got sprung from prison where he was serving time for stealing a painting — one of his own works. He works for a secretive company that specializes in recovering stolen art for men of great power and wealth who want their pretty possessions returned. He is sent to the Crescent City with an odd charge: “I said two paintings were found, but, back when, three were stolen together. Our job is to find the third. The police are probably thinking that if they find the painting, they’ll find the killer, but for us it’s the reverse. Vice versa. I’m not saying you should catch a murderer, but if we can find out who might have wanted this guy dead, the third painting may turn up.”
In the hands of a lesser writer, the shift in voices can be jarring and confusing, but Blackwell is a sure-handed writer who leads the reader through the plot like a skilled guide showing someone the best path through a dense forest. You won’t get lost. And you won’t fail to understand the central themes of revenge and redemption. Just as New Orleans is seeking to heal from Katrina, these people in the French Quarter are looking to heal their own wounds.
Blackwell’s style, except for the shifting voice, will remind readers a bit of Raymond Chandler, but not as hard-bitten. She is capable of creating a beautiful metaphor to describe complex situations. In one passage, Johanna recalls a childhood trip to the beach where she and her father build a sand castle.
“The one they build is large, protected by multiple sea walls. As they finish the tide breaks over the wall farthest out, filling the moat between it and the next. She sees, then, what will happen.
“’The people will have to move.’”
The people in this novel are all victims of broken moats, broken levees, and they are moving from one place to another in their lives. Blackwell’s characters are strong and appealing (mostly), and the plot is well-paced and enjoyable. The sadness of Katrina will always pervade any book set in that time, but readers will find a hopeful tone here, too. That, too, reflects reality.