Tuesday, August 4, 2009

'Gumbo Justice': Uneasy Times in the Big Easy

Review: GUMBO JUSTICE (Oak Tree Press 2009)
Author, Holli Castillo

Does it hurt yet?

Those are the opening words to GUMBO JUSTICE and they haunt the main character, Ryan Murphy, for reasons made clear much later in the story.

When we meet Ryan, she's being roused in the dead of night after drinking way too much tequila and falling off her bar stool into what she sincerely hopes is beer. The phone rings and Ryan is summoned to a crime scene. So she's a cop? No! She's a New Orleans assistant district attorney with a boss who's a bit overeager to impress voters during an election year by having his staff show up at crime scenes. But it is a police procedural, right? Not exactly.

GUMBO JUSTICE starts out as a legal drama-cum-police procedural, with the hint of something more creepy in store after we see a strange man named Jacob watching Ryan from his hiding place at what turns out to be the scene of several murders in the same housing project. And they all have one thing in common--which I won't go into for fear of spoiling any of the story. Let's just say there's a common thread and it leads to trouble for Ryan.

This all takes place during a too-hot spring in New Orleans, the Big Easy--you can really feel the steam heat, the sweaty brows and dampened shirts in Holli Castillo's description. And it's a city depicted (warts and all) as a bold clash of sweet-smelling narcissus and lavish mansions with shabby shacks and impoverished housing projects.

Ryan is a tough talking, hard-drinking gal who dresses down and flaunts her belly ring with impunity at the opening crime scene, not caring what the police captain (aka, her daddy) thinks. She puts on her game face around the cops--Sean, her brother; Shep, the cute one; Spence, the big strong guy. (So many "S" names!) One of whom she's secretly attracted to--leading to a hint of romance (at least, Ryan hopes so--even if she won't quite admit it to herself at first).

Castillo does a great job of weaving in all the cop procedural details, along with the legal stuff without getting too technical (being a criminal defense lawyer and former New Orleans prosecutor probably helps, huh?). And we get to see Ryan strut her stuff in court a bit. At times, she pulls a couple of TV lawyer maneuvers that had me shaking my head, but smiling at her antics (even Ryan admits she's going somewhat over-the-top). And since most of the story's told from her point of view, we get the benefit of her many sardonic remarks and snappy one-liners, like one in the first chapter, when she's hastily rolling on deodorant: "While people might call her a bitch, Ryan wasn't going to let anyone say she stunk." Got to admire a woman whose got her priorities straight, right?

But beneath that tough exterior, Ryan's a woman with ghosts in her past. Traumas from childhood and the more recent past come together to create a dark, disturbing situation for her.

The story builds in tension with each murder until the common thread emerges and Ryan must face the danger head on.

From that point, the story takes a turn into full-tilt suspense/thriller mode. The narrative shifts to the creepy Jacob more often and you hear more about how much he hates Ryan and ultimately wants to kill her. (And just so you know, that's not a spoiler. Jacob clearly despises Ryan when you first meet him and has some kind of dire plan for her.)

During the last third or so of the book, I could hardly read fast enough. I kept turning pages, anxious to see how things turned out.

And when all was revealed about Jacob, it left me with my jaw hanging in complete surprise. I'm usually pretty good at anticipating suspense/thriller revelations, but this one came at me from out of left field. And, looking back on it, the author played fair with the reader by providing clues hidden in plain sight.

Finally, the book ended with one of the most clever and astonishing twists I've seen in a while. Again, I was completely blindsided.

So if you like tough gal protagonists, particularly of the legal persuasion, I highly recommend GUMBO JUSTICE. It has a nice blend of police investigation, lawyering, suspense and even a little romance--sort of like Law and Order and suspense masters like Grisham and Patterson, all mixed up together (like gumbo?) in the Big Easy--with a big finish that I never saw coming.

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