My brother and I are two years apart in age, but our oldest children are only separated by four weeks on the calendar, which means that my sibling and I have essentially been going through transitions of parenthood together. There’ve been many great phases to share… and a couple dark ones too.
I’ll never forget opening an email from him with the message titled This Could Ruin Your Day. He’d sent me a link to a website that catalogued registered sex-offenders living in your county/city/neighborhood/block, and for weeks I was obsessively exploring my area online, as well as looking sideways at everyone I saw on the street, in the supermarket - wherever. I was a little paranoid, and it didn’t help any when I found someone that I knew listed on the site.
Someone my wife and I had considered a nice guy and good neighbor. We’d had him over and talked often in front of the apartment building. I felt vulnerable for the first time in my life. (In fact, I'm still conflicted in my thoughts about him - I never had the opportunity to talk with him because - ) He’d moved away from the area, but was still listed at the address we knew him from, which caused more paranoia in us – what do you mean, you don’t know where he is? How many cases could be like his?
Thankfully, we passed through that phase of new parenthood quickly and without incident, but the same can’t be said for Nola Cespedes – the heroine of Joy Castro’s fine debut novel Hell or High Water (a book that delivers both items its title promises).
Nola’s not a parent, nor looking for anyone in particular (at first, anyhow), she’s a young reporter for the Times-Picayune in 2008 - post Katrina New Orleans - who’s just been offered an opportunity to escape the fluff of the entertainment beat for a substantial story. In the devastation of the storm, and the clustercuss afterward, many of the city’s registered sex-offenders slipped through the sizable cracks in the system, and, in the years since, still aren’t accounted for. There’s a story in there.
Coinciding with Nola’s investigative piece is the public and day-lit disappearance of an attractive young tourist from the French Quarter, a case that becomes of increasing interest to Nola as her own rounds in the seedier (psychic and) physical locales of New Orleans.
Despite the ugly elements of the story, Hell or High Water is infused with so much affection for the Crescent City the tourism board should be promoting it. Hell or High Water is the first in what may become a series of books featuring Nola, and Castro has layered her with enough fertile past to intrigue us, and from which could easily sprout several more books' worth of story. I'm on board for more.
I’m always up for a fictional trip to New Orleans and it’s been several months since RJ Ellory’s A Quiet Vendetta and Ed Kovac’s Storm Damage gave me a fix. Also, for those of you waiting for paperback, Sara Gran’s excellent Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead is now available!
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