Fresh Meat: Hell or High Water by Joy Castro

Hell or High Water by Joy CastroHell or High Water by Joy Castro is a psychological suspense thriller set in post-Katrina New Orleans (available July 17, 2012).

Nola Céspedes, an ambitious young reporter at the Times-Picayune, finally catches a break: an assignment to write her first full-length feature. While investigating her story, she also becomes fixated on the search for a missing tourist in the French Quarter. As Nola’s work leads her into a violent criminal underworld, she’s forced to face disturbing truths from her own past and is confronted with the question: In the aftermath of devastation, who is responsible for rebuilding what’s been broken?

In New Orleans lurk sexual offenders, approximately eight hundred of them, who blew off the radar during Katrina and never officially resurfaced. The article Nola Céspedes is writing is meant to examine this problem from all sides: Is rehabilitation effective? Does the registry law work? How can sex criminals settle back into a civilian life lifestyle once their neighbors have been alerted? How do the neighbors feel about the whole thing?

One of those “off the grid” could very well have a young artist who has disappeared from the Quarter. Despite a prologue that makes it appear the missing girl will play a larger role in the plot, Hell or High Water is the story of Nola and NOLA and the sexual offenders at the heart of Nola’s assignment. Part New Orleans travel guide, part social justice essay, and part mystery, it’s mostly a character study as Joy Castro weaves the history of the city and the history of the protagonist. The storms that have wrecked them are both real and metaphorical; the damage now hidden from those who don’t expect it to be there. 

And therein lies the heart of Joy Castro’s complex novel: the similarities between the two main characters: Nola, the young Cuban journalist, and New Orleans, the city she both loves and hates. Both are bold and seductive on the surface and both hold secrets and nighttime terrors. Both have destructive qualities, awash in sin and colors meant to keep the darkness at bay. 

Juxtaposed against the rebuilding of her city post-Katrina, is Nola’s own rebuilding of her life. Once a child of the Desire Projects, she’s now a middle-class woman with an apartment, friends, a respectable job, and a college degree. But for all Nola’s attempts at a glittery Sex and the City lifestyle of dinners with her fabulous girlfriends and dancing the night away at local hotspots, beneath the surface is a girl who’s both afraid someone will find out her secrets and horrified at the injustices she still sees around her.

I pass Musician’s Village, the row of pastel houses dreamed up after Katrina and built by Habitat for Humanity—even Bush scampered around with a hammer for a day. Musician’s Village was the brainchild of Harry Connick Jr. and Branford Marsalis, and the goal was to lure back musicians who’d lost their homes in the storm. But anyone can live here. Each house is new, pretty, painted in bright pastels, and each stands at least a foot higher than the flood level. No unwashed babies roam the yards here yet. No tired ladies rock on porches. A rainbow of fresh paint, green lawns, and neat little fences runs along Alvar for blocks.

Of course, whoever ends up living in those sweet, clean, sturdy little houses will have to navigate the Ninth to get home at night.

Heading farther north, I finally arrive. My foot eases off the gas. Here, no one’s on the streets. On my right, the Florida Projects still stand, condemned and deserted, their jaunty pastel hopes now boarded up. The Desire Projects, on my left, were made of brick, like most of the public housing in New Orleans. Now they’re nothing.

I park the Pontiac, shoulder my handbag with its comforting gun, and get out. The air is hot, humid, sticky, and I’m the only human being I can see as I walk into the stripped foundations of Desire. The only home I knew for eighteen years is now just a bleak wasteland of cement slabs split by weeds. It’s hard to imagine that 262 buildings once stood here. A whole world. Darvis got shot, Mabel lost a leg to diabetes, Angel held his twin grandbabies at the age of thirty-five. My mother made a tiny Cuba in two rooms, an island of love. Auntie Helene passed away one night in her sleep.

Hell or High Water isn’t traditional in that its focus is not on the mystery of the missing girl. It’s also not fully the story of a journalist examining the laws and actions controlling sexual predators. Instead, it unravels what’s missing or broken under the brash surface of Nola and the city that holds her.  

Come for the crime, stay for the beignets.


Neliza Drew is a tofu-eating teacher and erratic reader with a soft spot for crime fiction. She lives in the heat and humidity of southern Florida with three cats and her adorable hubby. She listens to way too much music, writes often, and spends too much time on Twitter (@nelizadrew).

Read all posts by Neliza Drew on Criminal Element.

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