Doing the Devil's Work by Bill Loehfelm is a gritty, provocative story of a flawed woman struggling to be a good cop and the 3rd installment of the Marueen Coughlin series (Available in paperback June 7, 2016).
Someone's been cutting throats in New Orleans.
The victims weren't nice men—in fact, considering they were Neo-Nazi homegrown terrorists, the type more than willing to kill a few cops and innocent bystanders if given the chance, the number of people sad about their passing could only be recorded in the negative digits.
Still, murder is murder, and Officer Maureen Coughlin is duty-bound to get to the bottom of things.
Then, a traffic stop goes terribly wrong, opening a can that isn't so much full of worms as it is venomous snakes. In only a handful of hours, Maureen finds herself standing on dangerously shifting ground, unsure of who to trust or how to get out of the quicksand.
It's not just her newfound career that's on the line. She may not walk away from this mess at all.
In Doing the Devil's Work, Bill Loehfelm has crafted another story that isn't far removed from The Shield. This is a grim, gritty look at police work, where absolutely nothing is black and white.
There are no noble defenders of the peace here. Every boy (and girl) in blue is doing the job not because it's the right thing to do, but because they like the power. It's a job and they need the money—sometimes they need it badly enough to look the other way when certain names pop up in the course of an investigation; sometimes, evidence was made to be lost or forgotten.
Sometimes, the bad men end up walking—not because of a technicality, but because they have a pet policeman in their pocket.
Loehfelm's New Orleans is more Big Sleazy than Big Easy, a nightscape of law and disorder, where corruption can be as noticeable and oppressive as the humidity. Racial tensions run high, sexism is alive and well, and the simplest mistake or smallest lie can have monumental repercussions.
It's an evocative and atmospheric location, slightly larger than life. The ghost of Katrina continues to loom, in the ramshackle tenement projects and the half-built prison. For all that the city has (mostly) recovered from the storm, there's a recurring theme here that the past is never far away—that things in this place are always cyclical.
White lights had been strung through the low-hanging trees near the house. The guests milled about on the broad wraparound porch, gaslight shadows playing across their bodies. The men wore light, expensive suits. The women wore gowns and clutched thin wraps around their bony shoulders, their necks and ears and wrists dripping with jewelry. Older wealthy white people in formal wear being waited on by black people in cheap tuxedos. From where she stood, the night could've been October 1911, or 1811. That was an odd thing Maureen had noticed about New Orleans, the way the city, the way a scene you watched, could flicker from one century to the next and back again before your eyes… Anything could trigger the phenomenon: the distant sound of mule hooves on cobblestone, the scent of the river, a warm breeze through the rattling fronds of a dry palm.
She loved the effect, even when it showed her the less lovely reflections of the city. It was to her as if New Orleans lived suspended in a perpetual ephemeral present, a city in amber; nothing ever truly left, and nothing every truly died. Everything slipped behind the veil until its turn came around again, like your favorite painted wooden horse from the other side of the carousel.
Through this turbulent landscape of shifting loyalties and danger walks our heroine, Officer Maureen Coughlin. A relatively new addition to the still-corrupt New Orleans Police Department, Maureen is no angel herself.
With a violent past and a heavy chip on her shoulder, Maureen is trying to recreate herself in her new home. The fact that she's not a local doesn't do her any favors in this tight-knit city or on the tight-knit police force, where everyone seems to know everyone else.
Nor does it help that she's a woman, that she's young and driven, or that she's a little too eager to use the power invested in her by the law. Maureen's the sort who will no doubt earn multiple “excessive force” charges during her career, as her behavior during the traffic stop proves.
She's dabbled in drug use. She refuses to seek professional help for the trauma she's already been through, instead isolating herself from any support system. In short, she's a powder keg with a very short, already-lit fuse. It looks like it's only a matter of time until she properly explodes.
Maureen is a largely unlikable, slippery, difficult character—and that's probably why I love her so much. She's a rare find, rather like a diamond in a coal scuttle: a female character imbued with all of the qualities normally ascribed to male heroes.
If she were a man, her moodiness and temper and violent tendencies would be familiar and largely excused—seen as expected quirks rather than significant flaws. It's a character mold that's been used often enough in hardboiled crime fiction: the rebel with a badge, the vigilante, the crusader, the world-weary gumshoe. Just look at Luther, The Shield, or anything from Hammett and Chandler.
But she's a woman, a fact that Loehfelm never lets us forget. At every turn, she faces misogyny both on and off the job. She's single, lives alone, and is trying to make her way in a big city hundreds of miles away from any friends or family. For the ladies in the audience, we know just how perilous things are for her, and Loehfelm doesn't treat this subtext lightly.
When she had waited tables and a certain kind of high roller left a big tip at the end of the night, it wasn't for the service he'd already received, it was for what he expected next time he came calling. It was a demand, an expression of power. Solomon Heath was that kind of high roller, the kind who slid his hand down your hip and over the curve of your ass while you took his order, looking you in the eye while he did it, daring you to respond. Making sure you knew, because he had money, he could touch you wherever he wanted. Making sure you knew he could cost you your job.
It's refreshing to find a male author who can write a female character with such awareness and complexity, who can make her “one of the boys” without stripping away the inherent issues she must face as a woman.
And, while Maureen isn't a perfect paragon of do-gooding, she's still trying to do the right thing—which is more than can be said for several of her brothers in blue. She may crack a few heads during an arrest, but she won't willfully destroy or hide evidence. She's not someone who can be bought. She still has a strong internal moral compass that (mostly) guides her straight.
So, when she discovers that other officers are involved in the web of crime she's unknowingly stepped into, she doggedly pushes forward despite warnings, threats, and all-out attacks. Loehfelm sprinkles in plenty of juicy commentary about nepotism and how easy it can be for the rich to control the poor, and has plenty to say about the divide between white and black, the homeless and the employed.
Doing the Devil's Work is a complicated and complex story, so if you're looking for something light and breezy, this ain't the book for you. But if you enjoy moral quagmires, layered characters, and an unflinching look at life (and death) in a big city, Loehfelm really delivers the goods.
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Angie Barry wrote her thesis on the socio-political commentary in zombie films. Meeting George Romero is high on her bucket list, and she has spent hours putting together her zombie apocalypse survival plan. She also writes horror and fantasy in her spare time, and watches far too much Doctor Who. Come find the angie bee at Tumblr.