Lawd aw’mighty, it’s a relief to read a recently written novel set in New Orleans before Katrina. Not that there was ever anything innocent about the Big Easy, but something irreplaceable was lost when people died on the runway because the Secret Service grounded medevac flights for hours on end so President Bush could have the skies over the Crescent City to himself for a long-overdue P.R. flyover. So it is with fond nostalgia that we set the Wayback Machine to the year 2000 and visit the Faubourg Marigny with author Rod Davis’ protagonist Jack Prine, who makes his debut here in what appears to be the first book of a new and welcome detective series.
Prine is an interesting piece of work, even in the context of New Orleans, “where the nation’s leftovers tend to form up like lines of seaweed on the sand.” A veteran of the secret and often violent world of Army Intelligence in Cold War-era Korea, Prine finds himself making ends meet as an unofficial private investigator and freelance writer after a career in mainstream broadcast journalism ended with an episode of Felony Assault on an Editor—which, of course, is every reporter’s fantasy. Prine is not quite as hard-boiled as, say, Mike Hammer, but he’s definitely been on the griddle a few minutes past over-medium.
During an early morning stroll through the streets downriver of the French Quarter, Prine realizes that what at first appears to be a sleeping drunk on the sidewalk is, instead, the corpse of a young African-American homosexual whose skull has been caved in by blunt trauma. It’s the sort of thing that can complicate a morning walk, and to complicate things further, the corpse—one Young Henry, known more formally as Terrell Henry Meridian—has a sister named Elle, who herself adds a new definition to the word “complicated.” Also smart, lovely and troubled—but definitely more complicated than your average distressed damsel with unfinished business in the Delta. This is obviously an occasion requiring a knight in tarnished armor. Enter former Lieutenant Prine.
Thus begins a picaresque romp from New Orleans across the Delta and back again, through poverty and wealth and race and greed and betrayal and loyalty, echoing with Southern heritage and literature. Elle’s description of the Natchez Trace’s Witch Dance campground (“It isn’t even history. It’s barely even hearsay.”) is a far better Faulkner joke than I could come up with. But then I would rather read Joyce than Faulkner, and I’d prefer a recreational organ transplant to either. Still, the nod is one of the novel’s frequent subtle reminders that South, America is a bit more ambitious than your average detective thriller. I’m fairly sure there’s a reference to Langston Hughes’ “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” on page 85.
To fulfill the genre requirements, there is also a valuable stolen painting, a secret 8-figure inheritance from the white side of Elle and Young Henry’s family, an assortment of villians comprising blood relatives and mafiosos representing both Dixie and Jersey varieties, and a respectable level of violence and mayhem. No detective thriller is complete without the hero taking an ass-whuppin’ that leaves him pissing blood and vowing bloody retribution to follow. South, America is complete.
There is much here that brings to mind the Dave Robicheaux novels of James Lee Burke, and Burke’s norteamericano version of magical realism. South, America‘s version involves Elle’s aunt in the Delta, who is schooled in the vodou tradition. Davis handles this sensitive (especially in the hands of a Caucasian scribe) subject respectfully and well, without attempting to plumb the topic’s depths as found in J.J. Phillips’ Mojo Hand and A.R. Flowers’ De Mojo Blues. This isn’t anthropology, after all, and when the forces of evil are arrayed against you, a little bit of chanting and the blood of a freshly killed pigeon is like chicken soup for a cold—it cain’t hoit.
If there’s a gripe, it regards a trend in thriller writing that amplifies locale verisimilitude with regional food writing. Houston native John Lescroart excels at this, and no Burke book set in Louisiana is complete without a mouthwatering descriptions of etouffee and dirty rice. Davis, during long career in magazine journalism (including a spell as editor of The Texas Observer) once edited something called Cooking Light Magazine, and that experience seems to have seeped into his descriptions of cuisine in the land of the deliciously greasy spoon. One roadside stop includes a repast of Delta tamales, whose mysterious origins are a source of debate, but for the most part Prine and Elle pursue their mission with arterial plaque as a hazard avoided. I, personally, would rip my tongue out with rusty serving tongs before I ordered a grilled chicken sandwich at a ramshackle burger-and-blues joint in the Delta, but then this is only the start of what promises to be a fresh new series of thrillers. Perhaps a sequel will find Prine, .45 tucked beneath his shirt, at a café somewhere near Itta Bena savoring the legendary Floating Cheeseburger.
For readers’ sakes, if not for Prine’s, I sincerely hope those sequels are on the way.