Written by Bill Loehfelm — Maureen Coughlin, the protagonist of Loehfelm’s previous novel The Devil She Knows, is back. But the author has traken her from Staten Island, New York to New Orleans. She has left waitressing behind and joined the New Orleans Police Department. Having graduated from the academy, she is in the final week of her year-long probation. Her training officer is the streetwise veteran Preacher Boyd, who is an infuriating man who believes in doing as little work as possible. He treats Maureen with a mixture of old school sexism and paternal concern. Nevertheless she can’t afford to upset him if she wants a career in the NOPD. And for somebody as independent-minded as Maureen, that’s not going to be easy.
When Maureen gets punched in a routine bust, she knows it’s another black mark against her. Her intuition tells her she’s witnessed something important when she sees one teenage boy warn off another, and she’s determined to make up for her mistake. Preacher warns her away from doing any investigating on her own, but Maureen’s ambition and curiosity drive her on. Frustrated at first because she makes no progress, she bumps into one of the teenagers again as she stops a well known neighbourhood character breaking into a car. She hears one of the boys telling the man not to touch the car because it belongs to Bobby Scales.
Maureen and Preacher have never heard of Scales, and once again she’s advised by Preacher to keep her head down, but when the man turns up dead later on that’s no longer an option. Maureen’s investigation leads her into the darkest corners of post-Katrina New Orleans where a mysterious criminal is using the city’s orphaned and transplanted kids to commit crime. If they get caught, it’s simple – he kills them.
The crime aspect of this book is rather downplayed. For the most part, with the exception of Bobby Scales’ murder, everything is of the day-to-day variety, which suits the author’s purpose perfectly. What we see is the daily grind of police work – the form filling, the politics, the frustration and the little victories.
New Orleans plays a central role in The Devil in Her Way. Like his fictional heroine Maureen Coughlin, Bill Loehfelm moved from New York to New Orleans. The book is full of local detail and atmosphere. But what really makes it stand out is Maureen. The author has written a compelling character, raw and damaged from her experiences in New York, but gutsy enough to overcome them. His empathic skills, best displayed in a scene in which Maureen battles her anxiety during sex, are remarkable.
The police work reminded me of Joseph Wambaugh’s novels. The city-as-character could have come from George Pelecanos, but the characterisation and nuance are all his own. For me, the stand-out book of the year so far.
Sarah Crichton Books
CFL Rating: 5 Stars