Trying to adjust to the "new normal" of post-Katrina New Orleans ain't easy. Just ask beleagured ex-cop and mixed martial arts trainer CLIFF ST. JAMES who, five months after the storm, is still living rough in his storm-wrecked dojo, a sheet of plywood still covering a giant hole in the wall, scrabbling to survive in a city that's barely functioning.
So when Twee Sui, a young, attractive Vietnamese woman asks Cliff to investigate the death of her father Sam, a popular bar owner who was murdered during the course of an apparent robbery on the night that Katrina hit, he jumps at the chance, taking advantage of the Big Easy's suddenly relaxed private investigator licencing laws.
But as he probes further into his old friend's murder, he discovers there's far more to Sam than he ever knew or suspected. It turns out that during the Vietnam War, Sam flew clandestine missions for the CIA, and that his involvement with the agency -- and it's local head -- may in fact be ongoing. Things aren't helped along when it turns out that Twee seems utterly incapable of telling the truth about much of anything -- including her own involvement with a criminal gang trying to capitalize on New Orleans current dysfunctional state.
The author certain captures the uneasy shambles that the Big Easy has become, trotting out a long, vivid litany of devastation, corruption, greed and incompetence, as Cliff wanders, frequently on a bicycle, from wrecked bar to devasted restaurant to abandoned airfields working the case, taking an almost wicked glee in noting wreckage left behind by the hurricane. It's like a guided tour of what isn't there anymore, although for all the emotion Sam displays, he might as well be working his way down a checklist.
Because, despite his repeated assurances that he's tough, jaded and cynical -- when he's not telling us how much his divorce hurt him or how much he's pining for his ex-wife or how hollow he is emotionally -- we never really get a sense of who Cliff is, or that he ever felt much of anything. Making him not so much hollow as invisible.
Perhaps in his next outing, Cliff should turn his hardened gaze not on New Orleans, but on the man in the mirror.
Respectfully submitted by Kevin Burton Smith.
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