Fresh Meat: Nearer Home by Joy Castro

Nearer Home by Joy CastroNearer Home by Joy Castro is the second story about Times-Picayune reporter, Nola Céspedes (available July 16, 2013).

Note: This post contains *spoilers* regarding the first book in Joy Castro’s Nola Céspedes Mystery series, Hell or High Water.

Nearer Home–the follow-up to Joy Castro’s stellar Hell or High Water–is the tale of newspaper reporter Nola Céspedes and her investigation into the murder of Tulane University journalism professor Judith Taffner.

There are many reasons you should buy this book.  For one, it’s a clever mystery.  It’s also a thoughtful – and thought-provoking – commentary on race relations, gender inequality, the problem of poverty in New Orleans, and the divisive nature of politics.  And thirdly, the steamy New Orleans setting coupled with Castro’s lush, sultry prose makes it a perfect read for a sleepless summer night.

But if you ask me, the most remarkable thing about Nearer Home – the thing that will suck you in and keep you rapt – is the voice with which Castro chooses to tell her tale.

Nola is a guarded person; she tells us so early and often over the course of this book. Of late, she's gotten better at letting her friends in with regard to the secrets of her past:

“So, all right,” I say, “I’ve got a rich-people question for you.” Things have certainly gotten easier between my friends and me since I came out of the closet about my background in the Desire Projects. With my tentative new candor and their answering kindness, the class tensions that used to attend our shopping sprees and fancy evenings out—where I pretended that nothing pleased me enough to purchase, or that I loved side salads with a glass of water for dinner—have largely melted away.

But she still isn’t to the point where she feels she can unburden herself completely:

…I don’t tell Fabi about my troubles in the bedroom. That’s too personal. And too fucked up. It’s what I pay Shiduri Collins for.

She claims can’t even bring herself to be open and honest with the pages of her diary:

I log my feelings awkwardly, practically in code, hoping to God no one ever finds the little red notebook I keep stuffed between the mattress and box spring.

And yet her entire narration carries with it an air of confession. She’s so unflinchingly candid, so brutal in her honesty, you can’t help but feel as though you’re eavesdropping on a therapy session, ear pressed to the door as Nola confides all of her sins:

Vengeance isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, even when the guy’s been starring in your nightmares for two decades. Even when he’s been abducting, raping, and murdering women from the streets of New Orleans. The beautiful, searing, righteous high of vengeance can only last so long. Then you’ve got the fallout. The horror, plain and simple, of taking another human life. The guilt, because the public thinks—as you’ve led them to believe—that you’re a brave, heroic girl who killed a sexual predator in self-defense, when in truth his death was the pure product of vendetta. The new, uncontrollable trembling in your wrists when you pick up your gun.

The bad dreams of a different ilk, where you’re the monster now.

I’ve told her everything in her peaceful office on a tree-lined street, including the fact that I think I started planning Blake Lanusse’s death from the moment I opened his case file—that the interviews were little more than a ruse, a way to get him alone in his French Quarter condo, to see for myself if he’d changed. Dr. Collins is the only one who knows about my premeditation. When I told her, she onlysaid softly, “I’d like to have put a bullet in my uncle’s head.” When I confessed the full, serene, blossoming joy I’d felt when I learned that Blake Lanusse hadn’t changed at all—had deteriorated, in fact, upping the ante from rape to murder—and that no one would miss him, except perhaps his duped, overstuffed wife Lily, pobrecita, which gave me the moral greenlight to take him off the streets forever, Dr. Collins only smiled her soft, ambiguous smile. “There are other ways, Nola,” she said. Ways to deal, she meant. Healthy ways. Legal ways. But the shine in her eyes looked like pleasure.

It’s like you found that little red notebook stuffed under her mattress and are rifling through it with abandon. And that at any moment, Nola could walk through that door and catch you reading the things she never wanted to share with anyone, let alone you, a complete and total stranger. At times, the experience borders on voyeurism:

Bento’s bed. He’s lying back on the pillows, and I’m on top, the way I like it, my hips swiveling like they’re on a pivot, his beautiful brown chest and belly beneath me, his hands gripping my hips. The Moorish mirrors reflect infinite Bentos and Nolas, all working it. My arms are up over my head, my hands in my hair, and all shall be hot, and all shall be hot, and all manner of things shall be hot, and I’m Shamhat, I’m Shakira, I’m the Kama Sutra live hot girls— when all of a sudden, he fucks it up.

“Querida,”he says, reaching up to stroke my face. “Look at me.”

It’s like all the music stops. Just grinds to silence. His dark eyes, I can’t look into them.

“Querida,”he says again, and other love words.

I splay my hand on his chest and focus on it, my spread fingers against his skin. The ovals of lacquered scarlet. The heat of him. Focus. Breathe from my belly. Stay in the moment.

But when I glance back at his face, I can’t help it: he’s changed.

A cartoon, a bloated simpering fool, murmuring his dumb endearments. Disgust fills me fast, like a house fills with water, and I hate him and I hate myself and I need to be gone.

My hand on his chest pushes me back and off him, and I’m up and dressing, scattering the pieces from the backgammon board he’d placed so carefully on the floor, He’s sitting up, the sheet pulled around his hips.

“What is it?” he says. “What’s wrong?” But I just shake my head, mute, my mouth sealed tight because, sick and furious as I am, I do not want to blow this, I don’t. I can’t let the bile flood out of me. I mutter some words about a sudden stomachache that we both know aren’t true.

Before he can even pull on his jeans to follow, my feet are in my shoes and I’m out the door, and I’m gunning my Pontiac down dark streets, my hand fumbling in my purse for my cell, and then I’m glancing back and forth from its small bright screen to the road, thumbing to C, calling Shiduri Collins at one in the morning and hearing my voice husky in the dark cool capsule of the car:

“It’s me. It’s Nola. It happened again.”

But you just can’t bring yourself to stop reading. In fact, if you’re being half as truthful as Nola, that’s the very last thing you want to do.

The whodunit at the heart of Nearer Home is certainly compelling in its own right, but Joy Castro’s unique storytelling style adds a layer of electricity that serves to elevate her novel, placing it heads and shoulders above the typical thrillers with which it shares a shelf. Nola’s candor titillates, it engages, it excites, and most importantly, it leaves you begging for more.  And who on earth doesn’t want to read a book that can lay claim to all of that?

See more coverage of new releases in our Fresh Meat series.


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Katrina Niidas Holm loves mysteries. She lives in Maine with her husband, fabulously talented pulp writer Chris F. Holm, and a noisy, noisy cat. She writes reviews for Crimespree Magazine and The Maine Suspect, and you can find her on Twitter.

Read all Katrina Niidas Holm’s posts for Criminal Element.

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