Bill Loehfelm’s smartly written fourth novel, “The Devil in Her Way,” is a police procedural that succeeds by placing an intriguing heroine in a fascinating city. The heroine is Maureen Coughlin, a tough-talking, chain-smoking rookie cop who fights to save some teenagers from lives of crime. The city is New Orleans, post-Katrina, where lives of crime and lives devoted to good food, music and related pleasures have long been known to coexist.
At one point Maureen, a newcomer to the City That Care Forgot, sums it up nicely: “New Orleans was like some bizarre cross between the third world and an enlightened civilization that had advanced beyond ordinary American worries.”
Just out of the police academy, Maureen is glad she’s not assigned to the French Quarter, where she figures she’d mostly be a tourist guide. But in the tough corner of Uptown where she’s working, she is soon caught up in a murder and a mystery. An older man, a petty criminal, is shot dead. Maureen thinks some boys about age 12 or 13 know what happened, but they won’t talk. Then one of the boys is murdered and one disappears, and she fears that the third is targeted for death. She thinks a rising crime boss is the killer, but she doesn’t know who he is or where to find him.
That, roughly, is the novel’s plot — can Maureen find the killer and save the boy? — but “The Devil in Her Way” is more character-driven than most police stories. We learn a lot about tough, tormented Maureen. In an earlier novel, set on Staten Island, she killed a man who had kidnapped her; afterward, she decided to move to New Orleans. She has an on-and-off boyfriend, an amiable short-order cook, but is tiring of him. She thinks she’s drowning in survivor’s guilt for having lived when friends of hers died. She agonizes: “Was that why she’d become a cop, to ensure that she’d never run out of suffering?”
She’s bonding with a no-nonsense detective who’s the kind of cop Maureen hopes to become. But she’s having a hard time satisfying Boyd, the massive, street-smart black police sergeant she’s partnered with, who keeps reminding her that she has a lot to learn. Loehfelm knows how cops work and think, and his insights give this novel an in-the-street realism, as a well-meaning young white woman struggles to connect with black people who mostly don’t want her help. And then there’s Maureen’s mother, who comes from Staten Island for her first visit to New Orleans and hates the place.
Maureen, eager to show Mom the city’s charms, takes her to the French Quarter’s celebrated Cafe du Monde, which Maureen loves (“She sipped her Cafe du Monde frozen au lait, which was the closest thing in this world to ambrosia”), but a chance encounter with a purse snatcher convinces the hysterical Mom that she’ll never get out of this den of thieves alive.
The book also comments in various ways on how Katrina has changed the city. Older criminals have moved away, and new ones are emerging. Abandoned houses are taken over by gangs as hideouts and drug markets. Most memorably, Loehfelm puts Maureen in a busy shopping center and has her reflect on the time when the entire neighborhood was underwater:
“All day people had drowned. In parking lots, in their backyards, in their cars, in second-floor bedrooms, in first-floor pantries, in every household hiding place imaginable, and in the middle of wide-open, empty streets. Who drowns in a house? Or staring up at streetlights and billboards through six feet of hot, dirty water? Who drowns while straining to reach for their own rooftop, leaving torn fingernails behind in the eaves as the water carries them away?”
That’s part of Loehfelm’s heartfelt tribute to people who died anonymously, senselessly. But he has fun, too. Here Maureen reflects on the tourists who pack Jackson Square: “She heard British accents, some Italian, some French. Others were Americans. She didn’t need to hear them talk. They had the fattest shopping bags and the biggest, whitest sneakers.”
Ouch! Is that how we look to the natives? No matter. I won’t say that “The Devil in Her Way” is more fun that a weekend in New Orleans, but it would make a great read on the flight down. Laissez les bon temps rouler, baby!
Anderson reviews mysteries and thrillers regularly for Book World.
THE DEVIL IN HER WAY
By Bill Loehfelm
Sarah Crichton/Farrar Straus Giroux. 276 pp. $26