Mutilated bodies in New Orleans. Endemic graft and corruption. The wealthy capitalizing on personal connections to build a private paradise while corporations decimate the environment. Voodoo, Marie Laveau and a blood cult.
These unlikely elements combine in Blake’s stew of homicide, deadly secrets and the predictable greed of those who dictate by virtue of power. As ex-Pittsburg detective transplant and current New Orleans FBI agent Franco Patrese lands in the middle of a series of grisly homicides with voodoo trappings, he is drawn into a warren of conflicting interests, an entrenched system of political graft and a looming expose that (surprise!) leads to a network of powerful men operating above the law—often with the complicity of those sworn to serve and protect.
The fact that Blake uses a primary character ( NO Detective Selma Fawcett) to deliver the novel’s moralistic message is unsettling: “You cut off a perfectly healthy limb, you kill a perfectly healthy baby in the womb… how far will we go before we turn back to God?” Does this author not trust his readers to draw their own conclusions when confronted with complex social issues? In a minor character, this type of behavior would be entirely acceptable. Characters do, after all, add the flavor of lifestyles and opinions to stories. But Fawcett is a primary, a critical link second only to protagonist Patrese, her penchant for preaching smacking of polemic rather than the natural evolution of facts and evidence.
Besides his ambivalent relationship with his NOPD partner, Fawcett, a detective from the projects who has earned her shield, Patrese is too ready to place his trust in people only to learn the risk of this dangerous naiveté. While the plot is reasonably interesting, the forced narrative hinders any real emotional connection with place or characters. Vacillating between the mystery unfolding in the New Orleans murders, the emphasis on religious convictions of a major protagonist and the confluence of official police investigation and politics, Blake sends a mixed message: a city of opportunities large and small, true believers and a diverse cultural heritage, all about to meet Armageddon in the force of Hurricane Katrina.
Blake’s bad guys are bad; his good guys are also bad, no one trustworthy as crimes threaten to remain unpunished while nature’s fury bears down on New Orleans. Blake’s novel suffers from a confusion of perspective, a procedural format masking a loose confederacy of local politicians, scenes of carnage, and the longer view of a city in the throes of change. From religious fanaticism to a plot that would make Oliver Stone proud, City of the Dead is as inconsistent as that fabled director’s movies.
As an outsider dropped from one part of the country into another, Patrese cannot appreciate the unique personality of a city steeped in the tradition of corruption, which makes him either a logical skeptic or inexperienced carpetbagger (so to speak). This magnificent city’s essence is lost in the stampede towards resolution, one too easily achieved without the context of well-developed characters to define the conflicts of a unique way of life. Too convenient to drop the big-city detective into the roiling ambiance of New Orleans and expect him to catch on to its rhythm, a gimmick that is not successful.