For Cliff St. James, the hard-hitting PI (literally: he dabbles in mixed martial arts on the side) in Kovacs’s debut, life has a dividing line. There’s before the Storm and after. Since he lives in New Orleans (“Nu-whohr-lins” for those of us who use books to brush up on our regional accents), it almost seems like an insult call said Storm “Hurricane Katrina.” The “K” word is barely uttered. That’s what outsiders say, people who watched the disaster unfold on TV, not the ones who still live without electricity, some in FEMA trailers, some in patched-together houses that were, only five months before we meet Cliff, submerged in water tainted with sewage and enough bacteria to leave swatches of mold in its wake. But all of this, coupled with the police department’s barely 20% solve rate for homicides, is part of the New Normal. And just as the perpetually damp buildings are prime breeding grounds for mold and decay, the struggling city is ripe for crime.
Like so many of his fictional counterparts, Cliff becomes a PI following a truncated career as a cop. In his case, it’s hard to rise up in the ranks when you maybe-not-so-accidentally hit the Chief of Police in the face with a well-placed handful of Mardi Gras beads during a particularly alcohol-fueled moment of revelry on Fat Tuesday. His last day on the beat coincides with the full wrath of the Storm, as well as the discovery of a fresh corpse, local bar owner and former Chief Building Inspector Sam Siu. I’ve seen enough crime shows to know that dead body plus approaching hurricane do not a good pair make. It’s also just common sense that a cop whose first name is “Dice” is most likely dirty, or at registers somewhere on the sleazebag scale. Turns out Detective Sergeant Dice McCarty is the double whammy of dirty sleazebag, known to take bribes from area drug dealers as well as sleep with Cliff’s ex-wife. Add “possibly erasing pertinent files from a murder victim’s laptop at a crime scene” to his list of less than admirable qualities and Dice is firmly entrenched in my mind as a guy I wouldn’t mind seeing flounder around in a cage fight against Cliff. Fair-schmair.
Cliff’s first PI case brings Sam’s death full circle when his daughter, Twee—who may or may not be on the level herself—hires Cliff to investigate her father’s death. Apparently, in the aftermath of the Storm, NOPD’s to-do list didn’t include tracking down Sam’s killer, particularly since his body had been washed away and the crime scene flooded. Sam’s abandoned bar, the Tiki Hut, is far from the only thing that’s dirty as Cliff starts investigating. Despite his less than exemplary record with the department, Cliff maintains a healthy network of cop contacts, a list of chits he can call in should the need arise. Easily his most intriguing friend in blue is Sergeant Baybee. Admittedly, I thought she was a prostitute the first time she was introduced. And not the vice-cop-undercover-as-a-working-girl kind. This is because Sergeant Baybee’s first name is Honey. And the character isn’t a man built like a linebacker with a deceptively cute nickname. She’s a kickass woman who gets ornery if she doesn’t get to break up bar fights every so often. The name is still cringe-worthy but the character grew on me almost immediately. Especially because it’s obviously that Honey could take down Dice one-handed anytime.
The case itself is rewardingly twisty, especially given the fact that the majority of the suspects are guilty of something, even if it’s not murder (or not the murder Cliff is investigating). In a sense, Cliff’s journeys through various gang underworlds, as well as the CIA’s possible involvement with local drug trade, also serve as a skewed love letter to his adopted city. Just as so many of the structures need to be demolished and rebuilt from scratch rather than just shoddily patched up in the wake of the Storm, Cliff doesn’t gloss over the city’s still-festering open wounds in need of care. He’s also perfected the art of integrating stories about his own experiences during the Storm’s immediate aftermath—but only to a point—to further his own goals, such as obtaining his PI license in Baton Rouge:
The bag of pastries I brought from the Winn-Dixie didn’t hurt, either. The ladies were hungry for Danish and juicy tidbits of what it had been like during those first days after the Storm in the Big Easy, and I wasn’t above sharing in order to win their confidence and sympathy. I wanted that license today.So I told them true stories of boat rescues, body retrievals, and waxing a few dirtbags in gunfights. They were stories I was comfortable telling to strangers, the ones I had become dispassionate about. The memories that still got to me, the ones that made me wake up in a sweat in the middle of the night, I didn’t share with anyone except my buddies-in-arms who were there and who understood completely.
It’s odd to feel the urge to visit a place as ravaged by nature and humans as Kovacs’s New Orleans but somehow he makes it appealing. Granted, it would be handy to have Cliff as a tour guide (or body guard). I might also want to borrow some of Sgt. Babybee’s body armor but I think she’d fight me for it and I can already predict who’d win. It’s the spirit of the city that Cliff hangs onto and that Kovacs highlights. In the week leading up the first Mardi Gras following the Storm, right after someone has tossed his car, Cliff sees the familiar stirrings of the old “Nu-whohr-lins”:
From a gallery railing of the antique shop across the street, the owner had hung a purple, green, and gold flag. Purple, green, and gold meant as much to the people of NOLA as the fleur-de-lis or an LSU jersey. Purple, green, and gold were the New Orleans colors for Mardi Gras. I smiled as I looked up and down the block, more closely this time. I noticed some Mardi Gras beads hanging from a mailbox, a tattered and faded fleur-de-lis T-shirt draped from a window ledge, a purple, green, and gold pennant dangling from a shop’s doorknob. The hollow shell of a burned-out redbrick building on the corner was now draped with gold lamé bunting like a Vera Wang gown on a toothless meth head.
Jordan Foster grew up in a mystery bookstore in Portland, Oregon. She has a MFA in Fiction Writing from Columbia University, which she’s slowly paying off by writing about crime fiction for Publishers Weekly and Bookish. She’s back in Portland, where it’s nice and rainy and there are endless places to stash bodies. She tweets @jordanfoster13.