Bill Loehfelm’s “The Devil In Her Way,” a page-turning thriller following impulsive NOPD rookie Maureen Coughlin, is a perfect love letter to New Orleans.
New Orleans author Bill Loehfelm has lived in this city longer than me, but he is also a transplant. People who move to New Orleans from elsewhere often romanticize the city, and writers especially like to spend their first few years in town writing love letters to the city, to the smell of sweet olive and jasmine, to the beautiful brokenness of our shoddy infrastructure, falling-down houses next to renovated ones, to the madness and joie de vivre of its residents.
Of course, it gets tiresome.
I’ve written those love letters before, but the dark side of New Orleans–the crime, the fear, the sense of creeping dread–entered my consciousness early on. First, my car got stolen on day 15 of residency. Second, and more importantly, I found NOLAFugees, a darker-than-The-Onion parody of New Orleans news that also published searing first-person essays. It specifically counteracted the stars-in-their-eyes romanticism of YURPS (Young Urban Rebuilding Professionals), Beacons of Light and other transplants.
Maureen Coughlin is a perfect character to watch fall in love with New Orleans, in perfect, destined-not-to-be-romantic circumstances. The hard-edged former Staten Island waitress has to constantly guard her tongue. She’s smart, but impatient, proud, and quick to cut.
Jaded would not be the right word to describe Maureen–it’s too casual, too for-show. Maureen is a survivor. Much of the “behind-the-scenes” plot of Loehfelm’s fourth novel (that is, the not-crime parts) focuses on the residual circumstances of her origin story (as Alison Fensterstock referred to Loehfelm’s previous Coughlin novel, “The Devil She Knows”).
Maureen is traumatized. She fights panic attacks. In fact, this undercurrent of the novel–Maureen’s ongoing story–shows some of Loehfelm’s best work. A scene where Coughlin fights off a panic attack during sex shows incredible nuance and rings so true that it’s easy to miss that this–THIS HERE–is the real story. The crime in New Orleans? It happens. It can be truly terrible. But, again, as Fensterstock noted in her review, the crimes at the center of this novel are almost run-of-the-mill. In fact, they’re grist for the mill–both in terms of the ongoing cycle of violence from the drug trade and the Katrina diaspora–and in terms of giving the reader something exciting to think about while Loehfelm gets his real pieces in play.
Maureen’s arc is what matters.
Loehfelm’s craft, particularly with the ongoing story of Maureen’s recovery, is matchless. It shows the patience of one of his well-rendered secondary characters: the homicide detective, Atkinson, who is nicknamed “The Spider” for her ability to wait out her prey.
It is this protagonist–a smart but traumatized, in love but unromantic, tough but stubborn–that is the perfect heroine for a story that loves New Orleans. And placing her on the post-Katrina, disgraced NOPD, is the coup de grace. I recognize many of the places that Loehfelm writes about–they are his neighborhood, and they are mine.
To call this book off the tourist map is cheap. Yes, many readers will get a chance to see a different side of New Orleans than they imagine. One can only hope that they see it less like Maureen’s mother–who takes a dim view of our blood-soaked city, with pretty good reason–and more like Maureen. But that’s that’s beside the point. This book is big, and it’s a big thing for New Orleans. But Maureen Coughlin is bigger than New Orleans, at least in the landscape of this story. She’s the one to watch.
I’ll be there.
Bill Loefhelm will be appearing at Garden District Book Shop today (April 30) for the book launch at 5:30 p.m. Other appearances this month around New Orleans:
- Friday, May 3, 3-4 p.m. at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival (Books Tent)
- Tuesday, May 14, 6 p.m. at Maple Street Books in the New Orleans Healing Center (2372 St. Claude Ave.)
- Tuesday, May 21, 6 p.m. at Octavia Books (513 Octavia St.)