Floodgates. For some, in New Orleans, they are an obsession. From one character’s desire to end the plague of pestilence to another’s discovery of their potential failure, the floodgates holding back the water is central to this murder mystery tale.
Faye Longchamp, taking a few semesters off to work a project that could help with her dissertation, is working at Chalmette where Andrew Jackson fought the British in the War of 1812. She and her crew are excavating a spot where the battlefield park’s visitor center is to be built. It’s “an archaeological survey, working in advance of the construction team to make sure that nothing old and irreplaceable was destroyed.”
It’s 2008. Three years since Katrina wrought devastation in the area. New Orleans has resumed a semblance of normality, but low lying areas, like the Lower Ninth Ward, are still silent testaments to the destruction one hurricane and the failure of the levees, the floodgates, brought about. Matt, a park ranger, takes Faye on a tour of the Lower Ninth Ward, and it is there that a body is discovered in a dilapitated house. One look though, and Faye reasons that this is not a victim of the flood—an all too real possibility even three years later—but rather a woman who was killed.
The victim, Shelly Broussard, was, like Faye, an archaeology student who in the immediate aftermath of Katrina used her knowledge of aerial photography and GPS to help lead rescuers to those needing aid. It turns out she was well-known to Matt, to Faye’s assistant at the dig, Nina, and to Nina’s boyfriend, Charles, who works with an engineering firm that may have a connection to the failed levees.
The characters in Floodgates are refreshingly diverse and reflective of New Orleans itself. “When walking down a New Orleans street, she was rarely the only person of uncertain racial heritage within eyeshot.” An apt description of Faye, who is biracial, and who learns something of her uncertain heritage in the course of this story. Faye’s boyfriend is Joe Mantooth, a Native American of Creek descent. Though neither of them are originally from New Orleans, they are staying in a Tremé neighborhood apartment. Their landlady is Dauphine, a mambo (think voodoo priestess), who is also assisting with Faye’s dig. Then there’s savvy, seemingly laidback Jodi Bienvenu, the police detective who “hires” Faye as a consultant to help investigate Shelly’s murder.
Interestingly, there’s an almost disconnect between some chapters, like layers of a narrative unfolding. Each chapter seesm to start froma different angle, revealing more details about characters and places before slipping back into the story’s main thread. And the novel is interspersed with excerpts from a fictious history of New Orleans, The Floodgates of Hell, with “The Reminiscences of Colonel James McGonohan,” an engineer who fought with Andrew Jackson and remained in New Orleans. These interludes give an account of an earlier time in the city’s history. Part of these reminiscenes include the tragic tale of Monsieur Deschanel who, in the 1820s, became obsessed with creating a New Orleans that was “a clean, dry, and safe place to nuture a family.” To do this, Deschanel designed floodgates. “If those floodgates functioned properly–and he was accustomed to his machinery functioning as designed–then they would serve as a prototype for the protection he had begged the city to install.”
Without overly descriptive passages, the novel paints evocative portraits of its New Orleans locales, from the Chalmette Battlefield and the Lower Ninth Ward to Jackson Square and the French Quartier to Congo Square and the Tremé neighborhood. Characters conversations about Katrina and its aftermath particularly resonate, though this may disturb sensitive readers and those who may have a more personal connection to the events described.
If anything, the whodunit is perhaps the weakest element here, but it’s more than compensated for by an interesting story and engaging characters. Floodgates is the fifth book in this archaeologically themed mystery series.