15 Aug 2014
The past really is a foreign country in this republication of a New Orleans mystery novel.
New Orleans Requiem. D.J. Donaldson. Astor + Blue Editions. Ebook and trade paperback.
Night of the Living Novels
They’re coming by the tens of thousands. The forgotten. The abandoned. From the highly regarded to the barely remembered. And they can’t be stopped.
They’re the Remainders.
They’re novels that had been published, faded, dropped and given new life on your ebook reader. Many of them were revived by their authors who got the rights back after they fell out of print. Publishing houses, seeing how much money writers were making off their spent books, are combing their backlists and reviving once-profitable series in hopes of striking gold again. New companies such as mystery and thriller publisher Brash Books are bringing back the best examples from the genre.
Call it the Great Hiccup. Used to be, a book had one chance to find its audience before fading to used-bookstore limbo. There it would sit, embalming the culture that created it, to be picked up by readers drawn to a memorable cover from their reading youth, or flipped through like a researcher examining an historical artifact. Now, they’re being converted to 1s and 0s and resurrected, revived and electrified and returning from their pulpy graves to compete with new works.
Revival in New Orleans
In the 1990s, D.J. Donaldson published six books about New Orleans Medical Examiner Andy Broussard and psychologist Kit Franklyn. The second book, “New Orleans Requiem,” was given a starred review in Publisher’s Weekly. It contained the genre’s popular tropes at the time — serial killers and forensic scientists — mixed with scenes of pre-Katrina New Orleans recognizable to any tourist.
Because it was published in 1994, “Requiem” naturally reflects its times. Encountering the changes between then and now can be disorienting. New Orleans is still whole. Iraq and Afghanistan haven’t happened. Smartphones, the Internet, and Google are nonexistent, forcing everyone to track down information by hand. (Kit’s quest for a set of Scrabble tiles requires her to visit something called a “toy store.” Amazingly convenient. Whatever happened to them?)
“Requiem” opens with a body found in an artist’s crate in Jackson Square. The victim was stabbed, one eyelid was removed, and four Scrabble tiles left on his chest along with a section from the local newspaper on his chest. Not only that, a hair was attached with tape to the tiles. Clearly the killer doesn’t believe in half-measures when it comes to leaving messages.
The rest of the book consists of Franklyn following the chain of clues left behind by the killer, Broussard examining the bodies, and the police concluding that the killer could be an attendee at a convention of forensic scientists in downtown New Orleans. The story picks up speed as they shuffle through the suspects, culminating with a tense cat-and-mouse chase through downtown. The revelation of who, how and why can’t bear too much thinking, however. Following the trail of clues the killer left behind required Poirot-level thinking and leaps of logic as wide as Lake Pontchartrain.
Intertwined with the killings are the stories of Broussard and Franklyn. While they are attracted to each other, Broussard is haunted by his past and Franklyn is involved in a relationship. Broussard also loves Louisiana cooking, which gives us a reason to visit a restaurant for po’ boys and crayfish. That’s pretty much sums them up. “Requiem” pauses several times for them to reflect on their feelings and memories, before picking it up again with the arrival of another body.
“New Orleans Requiem” is a book hamstrung by its time and tropes. Serial killers aren’t nearly as interesting to readers as they were in the days of “Silence of the Lambs.” The culture is flooded with books and TV shows revolving around autopsies and microscopes, and the science behind them has progressed to DNA profiling and beyond. Donaldson’s New Orleans is little more than window dressing. Broussard and Franklyn are realistically drawn characters. They’re nice people. They could be someone you see every day at work. But is nice good enough to carry a book?