Subtitled A Sister Holiday Mystery, Scorched Grace is all about the crime-solving queer punk nun, Holiday Walsh. Originally from New York, she has found herself after a series of personal disasters as the music teacher at New Orleans’ Saint Sebastian’s Catholic School. Her chaotic life has left her emotionally burnt out, and a period of piety and self-reflection is what she feels she needs.
Holiday is one of four nuns teaching at the school and is less than half the age of the others. She’s an outsider at the school amongst the nuns, and not just because of her age. As well as being a celibate lesbian, Holiday is heavily tattooed, an ex-punk rocker, a drug user and a smoker.
While snatching a cigarette down a side alley one evening, she notices that the east wing of the school is on fire. Suddenly, a flaming body drops from the second floor. Holiday runs over and is horrified to find the janitor, Jack, one of her few true friends at the school, dead on the ground. Despite the danger, she rushes inside to find two students, Lamont and Jamie, succumbing to the smoke. The emergency services have arrived by the time Holiday has got Jamie out, and she collapses.
By the time Holiday comes round, the cause of the fire has been identified and Investigator Riveaux has marked her as a suspect. Holiday is warned off but fired by a strong moral sense and with the experience of having a father who was a police detective in Brooklyn, she decides to begin her own investigation.
Scorched Grace is narrated by Holiday herself, which gives us greater insight into her contradictions – her trauma but also her resilience; her considerable capacity for self-sabotage (she torched both her music career and her relationship by always getting wasted at the worst possible time). By contrast she is determined and has a huge heart.
Holiday’s personality gives the novel a really individual feel. I’ve lost count of the number of mysteries I’ve read but she is among the most memorable detectives I’ve come across. Elsewhere, author Margot Douaihy evokes the uncomfortable heat and humidity of New Orleans, and the restrictive atmosphere of the convent and Catholic school. I liked that despite Holiday’s unorthodox background, her faith never feels inauthentic or, God forbid, a joke.
Holiday’s first hypothesis is that the students may have set the fire after the janitor caught them in a tryst, but she is shocked to discover that there has been an attempt to frame her for the fire; a development which seems to point to the boys innocence. Shortly afterwards, there is another fire and another death when Holiday finds Sister Therese dead in the cafeteria. Therese, like Jack, was one of Holiday’s few supporters. Alongside her investigation, Holiday also has to deal with the emotional fallout of a visit by Nina, the lover who broke her heart.
My only reservation about Scorched Grace revolves around the mystery. The solution to the fires and the murders rather falls into Holiday’s lap, and I don’t believe it could have been solved by the reader from the clues gathered. However, this book intends to be more about Holiday than it is about her investigation.
Scorched Grace is the first book published by Gone Girl author Gillian Flynn’s new fiction line in the US, Gillian Flynn Books, which gets off to a great start with a distinctive, intriguing novel. In the UK it’s published by Pushkin Vertigo.
Also see the Cass Neary series by Elizabeth Hand.
Gillian Flynn Books / Pushkin Vertigo
CFL Rating: 4 Stars