Burnt Black by Ed Kovacs is the third novel in the Cliff St. James series about a detective living and working in a post-Katrina New Orleans (available November 19, 2013).
In the third installment of Ed Kovacs’s New Orleans crime series, his edgy protagonist, NOPD Homicide Detective Cliff St. James (who continues his P.I. business on the side) is alerted to a potential murder that has occurred next door to the house that he and his partner, Honey Baybee, have spotted while house hunting for her mother. Turns out it’s not just one person dead, but two, and at the base of what looks like an altar, no less. In fact, when they enter the house, they immediately knew this scene would be out of the ordinary.
I did a fifteen count, waiting for Honey to get around back as I eyed a couple of carved wooden gargoyles with maniacal expressions on either side of the front door. A vertical line of graffiti-like characters painted in glossy black decorated one side of the door frame.
Kind of odd.
I mounted the front steps and turned the knob. The door was unlocked, and I entered the dark room, pistol in hand.
My eyes adjusted to the dim light as I shut the door behind me. It was like stepping into an arts center that just so happened to also have some household furniture. “Cluttered” doesn’t do justice to describe the room, and I flashed on a museum I knew: the Voodoo Museum in the French Quarter.
My eyes danced over Native American fetishes, rattles, and drums; African/Caribbean/Asian and other primitive wooden statuary loomed all around, bedecked with bright, primary-colored strips of cloth. The “coffee table” was a glass-topped casket containing a full-size human skeleton that had symbols and text etched on the cranium. Hundreds and hundreds of books jammed shelving, fighting for space with quartz-crystal human skulls, porcelain figurines of Catholic saints painted to wear black robes,polished stone figures that looked Mayan, feathers, exquisite conch shells, and clusters of large semiprecious stones such as amethyst, tourmaline, and malachite. A white wooden cross had unusual symbols and writing painted on it and stood surrounded by vials, bottles, sachets, and black candles of every shape.
Animal heads hung stuffed and mounted on every wall, including the ugliest javelina I’ve ever seen, and that’s saying something.
And then there were the bones. Human bones. Femurs, fibulae, rib cages, pelvic bones, sternums, clavicles, skulls. From adults . . . and children. I had a strong feeling there’d be no more house-hunting today. The bones overwhelmed me with a recollection of mass murderers past. Very sick ones.
Not only is the house full of oddities, but it also comes complete with a room especially set up for bondage games and of course, the two dead bodies. Turns out the house belongs to one Professor Drake, who’s going to have quite a bit of explaining to do. Soon St. James and Baybee discover that Drake is an experienced practitioner of the dark arts, and this discovery will lead them on a very gruesome path. Luckily, St. James is open to considering out of the ordinary scenarios to explain the deaths, and as physically tough as he is, can’t discount that there may be things that can’t be readily explained.
Just how tough am I? Truth is, I’ve always been gun-shy toward the occult. Voodoo and the like kind of spook me. I have no problem with opponents in a physical confrontation, but what if the confrontation is nonphysical? I’m not one to discount the power of shamans and sorcerers, and because I have no skills or knowledge in those arenas, it makes me feel vulnerable now.
Many people opt to take the simple position that witchcraft or sorcery or whatever general, generic umbrella term one chooses to use for the arts of the occultist is just a sham practiced by charlatans. And New Orleans, historically, has had no shortage of charlatans, including those who operated in the past as voodoo priests and priestesses.
But I’d seen some monks do things when I studied martial arts in China that were . . . unexplainable. So I remained open-minded on the subject and strongly suspected there was something to what some call the “manipulation of energy.” Personally, I had chosen to ignore those disciplines, to distance myself from them, because they made me uncomfortable. I was—and am—an outsider to such worlds and have chosen to stay that way.
I hadn’t been kidding with Honey; I’d never move into a haunted house. Just being in Drake’s house was creepy enough. What kind of coward did that make me out to be?
Even for a city still recovering from the ravaging effects of Hurricane Katrina, the addition of more dead bodies is something nobody wants, and the connection to black magic is even more alarming to the detectives. Also alarming is the wedge that seems to have come between Cliff and Honey. He’s been in love with her forever, and she knows it, but they’ve yet to move their relationship to the next level, although Cliff has certainly tried (can you say multiple marriage proposals?). Could her standoffishness have something to do with the case? After all, she’s not too sure that homicide has actually occurred, but Cliff has other theories. Either way, it’s especially frustrating to Cliff and they need to be able to work seamlessly together in order to solve a case that keeps ratcheting up the body count.
This series has a definite southern noir feel, and its rough around the edges locale will be catnip to some readers, like myself. The black magic element gives it a particularly gritty edge and the book has more twists and turns than the streets and back alleys of New Orleans itself, not to mention some pretty gruesome surprises, perfect for a cop that doesn’t always play by the rule book to get what he wants, and doesn’t hesitate to knock heads in the interest of justice.
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