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THE RED STORM by Grant Bywaters: Book Review

William Fletcher, formerly a professional boxer and currently a private eye, isn’t finding life easy.  Fletcher was working in New York City in the early 1920s after the end of his boxing career led him to become “muscle” for Bill Storm, a low-level gangster.  Storm had become desperate in seeking ways to make money after his unpredictable behavior led other criminals to avoid giving him jobs, so he kidnapped the son of a wealthy family and was holding him for ransom.

When he called on Fletcher to watch the boy while he left them to obtain the ransom, Fletcher freed the boy and waited for Storm’s return.  A fight ensued with Fletcher being badly beaten, but both men were able to escape before the police arrived.

Fifteen years later, Fletcher has relocated to New Orleans, earning a precarious living as the only licensed black investigator in the city.  He hasn’t been in touch with Storm during all those years, but now Storm has tracked him down and is looking for a favor.  He tells Fletcher he has a daughter whom he hasn’t seen since she was an infant, more than twenty years earlier.  Now he’s dying and wants to meet with her before his death.  He’s been told that his former wife is now living in New Orleans, and he has convinced himself that if his wife is found, their daughter will be with her.

Fletcher reluctantly agrees to look for Storm’s wife, Frieda Rae.  Armed only with a photograph of the woman that was taken years before, Fletcher locates a woman who recognizes the woman in the photo.  She tells the detective that Frieda Rae died just a few months earlier, but she’s heard that the woman’s daughter is singing at some low-down blues joint on Bourbon Street.  So Fletcher heads that way to locate her.

He finds the young woman, as he was told, singing in a club that is really more of a brothel.  But she’s simply a vocalist, not a prostitute, and goes by the name Lady Storm.  When she’s told that her father wants to see her, she tells Fletcher she’ll have to think about it.  Feeling he’s done his job, Fletcher leaves, only to get a call a few hours later from his friend Brawley, a detective on the city’s police force.

The police have discovered Bill Storm’s body with a bullet hole in the back of his head on a street in the French Quarter.  In his pocket there’s a note saying “Meet me in Congo Square at 11:30 tonight.–Zella.”  That’s Storm’s daughter’s real name.

The Red Storm is a great read, due in part to its terrific characters and its sense of place.  The Crescent City of the 1930s is alive with jazz, blues, ladies of easy virtue, corrupt cops, and more.  William Fletcher is a flawed hero but a real man.

You can read more about Grant Bywaters at various sites on the Internet.

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Mystery Reads at her web site.



HELL OR HIGH WATER by Joy Castro: Book Review

In 2008, the city of New Orleans was still reeling from the hurricane that had savaged it three years before. Homes and businesses were devastated, especially in the poorest districts, most particularly the Ninth Ward.  Nola Cespedes, a new reporter on the Times-Picayune, is all too familiar with the problems that the city had faced even before the storm hit.

Brought up by a single mother who emigrated from Cuba and earned her living cleaning the homes of rich white people, Nola has lifted herself out of childhood poverty on the strength of her brains and her mother’s love and belief in her.  But Nola has hidden her past even from her three closest friends, and, it turns out, even from herself.

Nola’s opportunity to break out of the Living and Lagniappe section of the newspaper comes when she’s given an assignment to interview men convicted of sexual crimes.  Over eight hundred men are on the streets of the city–rapists, child molesters, sexual perverts–and Nola’s editor wants her to follow up. She doesn’t want the story, but she has no choice.  And the subject becomes unfortunately current when a young woman is abducted in broad daylight, as was another woman in the city who was found raped and killed.

After reviewing the files of dozens of convicted abusers, Nola decides to interview five of them, although in the end only four of them agree to meet her.  With her stomach churning, Nola tries to find out what makes one man rape and cut, another beat his victims before raping them, a church pastor abuse thirty-two of his parishioners, an elementary school principal rape his female students, and a wealthy New Orleans resident of impeccable heritage force himself on his household help.

In addition, Nola decides to speak to several of the victims of abuse and tell their stories to the paper’s readers.

Outside of work, there’s a lot going on in Nola’s private life.  She meets weekly for dinner with her three closest friends.  But in Nola’s mind, each one of them has things she doesn’t have and has never had–a fiancee, wealthy parents, a homeland she can return to.  Nola believes that if her friends knew the truth about her–her poverty-stricken past, her budget-crunching present–they would pity her, and with that she cannot and will not deal.  So she goes along, pretending. As she puts it to herself, “You silence the parts of yourself that point out how privileged they are, or else they make you feel sordid, small, ashamed.”

Joy Castro has written a fascinating novel about the sexual abuse that is sadly a too-common story. The feeling that no one can be trusted–not clergy or teachers or family members–is all too real in today’s word, just as it is in Hell or High Water.  The author brings that reality home to her readers skillfully, but she also tells the story of a young woman trying to face down her fears and anxieties while continuing with her own life.  The characters in this novel are realistic and compelling.  Some are charming, whom you would like for friends; others are depraved, whom you hope you would never encounter.

You can read more about Joy Castro at her web site.