Book Review: Voodoo River, by Robert Crais

Voodoo River. Robert Crais. Hyperion Paperback. Suspense. 1995. $8

I use a combination of tape flags and mechanical pencil to take notes in the margins when I read. I read crime/suspense novels for fun (and no profit, other than my own benefit), and to help people realize the geography they are being exposed to in the course of their lives. Perhaps unwittingly exposed to, at least according to the premise of my blog.

For example, this afternoon I spoke with a STEM-oriented College of Ed professor. She related an anecdote about state Geographic Alliance members fighting to impose geography standards within the Common Core. The problem as I see it is this. Fighting to include geography standards is barely relevant because EVERYTHING WE DO IS GEOGRAPHIC BY NATURE of NATURE. Fighting to incorporate geography standards is like fighting to impose breathing in all classrooms. However, it doesn’t hurt to remind people to breathe. When a biology teacher shows a map depicting the distribution of SARS, or West Nile Virus, that is geography. And when an English teacher talks about the setting of a story, that too, is geography.

And when authors build a tale in and around familiar places, they are using geography. Like Robert Crais using his character, Los Angeles private eye, Elvis Cole, to reveal the geography of coastal California, especially Malibu. Cole meets a popular TV star, Jodi Taylor, and her manager, Sid Markowitz, for a special task. Jodi was adopted, she has a concern about her health, and wants Elvis to find her birth parents.

Seems simple enough. Fly to New Orleans, Louisiana, rent a car, and drive to Ville Platte, LA. From there, visit the hospital, conduct some research in the local newspaper archives, and figure out some likely candidates for parents. I’ll take that $10,000, thank you very much. Except nothing is ever as simple as its seems, especially when Hollywood personalities are involved.

Where does Elvis Cole begin? With Jodi’s birth certificate, or course. When people are born, each little wee thing must be documented to some extent. This document is called a birth certificate. Typically, the doctor, the hospital, and the city and state are included on the birth certificate. I’ve never seen mine so I can only assume I don’t really exist. In Ms. Taylor case, we learn she was born in Ville Platte, Louisiana, on July 9th, 36 years ago, (about 1960, as the book was copyright 1995; 1995-36 = 1959-1960). Also, Ms. Taylor is a female and white. She was given up for adoption at birth and the records were sealed. But Jodi has a copy of the birth certificate she was able to … obtain. Elvis believes this to be a simple open-and-shut, money in the bank, case. How many white female babies were born in Ville Platte, Louisiana, in July 1959? Seems like a pretty easy search.

Cole travels to Ville Platte, Louisiana and runs across a local lawyer, Lucy Chennier. Ms. Chennier is easy on the eye, and Cole develops an immediate soft spot for the single mom. As they eat some of the fine local cuisine, etouffee and crawfish platter, Cole begins to realize some facts about Taylor’s request don’t seem to add up. Like how did she get a copy of her birth certificate from supposedly sealed documents, available only to a limited number of people within state government?

Lucy said, “The bisque is like a soup that’s been enriched with crawfish fat. The heads have been stuffed with a combination of crawfish meat and bread crumbs and spices. You can pick it up, then use your spoon to lift out the stuffing.”

Etouffee is uniquely Cajun, born in the backwaters and bayous of coastal Louisiana. The word, etouffee, is from the French, meaning “smothered” or “suffocate.” And we all know from our history classes, Louisiana was a former French territory, sold to the United States by the French monarch, Napoleon Bonaparte, so he could pay for his war in Europe. Later, Lucy inquires if “the etouffee you get in California tastes like this?” “Not even close,” was Elvis’ response. From this simply interaction we learn the importance of regional foods, and how tastes and culinary influences change with geography. We learn from the conversation snippet how robust Louisiana etouffee tastes, and California etouffee seems to be similar in only name alone.

“The freeway rose the last twenty miles or so, elevated above swamp and cypress knees and hunched men in flat-bottomed boats. Lake Pontchartrain appeared on our left like a great inland sea, and then the swamps fell behind us and we were driving through a dense collar of bedroom communities, and then we were in New Orleans. We took the I-10 through the heart of the city past the Louisiana Superdome, which looked, from the freeway, like some kind of Michael Rennie The Day The Earth Stood Still spaceship plunked down amid the highrises. We exited at Canal Street and drove south toward the river and the Vieux Carre

Here we we lots of geography. Biogeography is evident in the surroundings around Lake Pontchartrain, the swamp and the cypress knees. Cypress is only found in certain places. Just like Magnolias, or banana shrubs, or orange orchards, cypress trees only grow in warm, humid, well-watered locations – like coastal Louisiana. Their drive takes them through the hinterland of New Orleans as noted by the “bedroom communities.” These tend to be affluent neighborhoods occupied by people who can afford to drive into New Orleans to work and who can afford to live life at a distance. The highrises indicate the presence of the central business district (CBD) of New Orleans, historically the economic heart of any urban complex.

“We drove four blocks to the big World Trade Center at the levee, then swung around to Decatur and the southern edge of the French Quarter. We parked across from the old Jackson Brewing Company, then walked east toward Jackson Square past souvenir shops and restaurants and a street musician working his way through “St. Vitus Day March.” He was wearing a top hat, and I pretended to look at him to try to find Joe Pike. Pike might have seen our turn; he might have cut the short blocks over and seen us creeping through the French Quarter traffic as we looked for a place to park.

We know from Hurricane Katrina New Orleans has an elaborate levee system to hold back the waters of the Mississippi River. Much of the city is lower in elevation than the river channel and the levee and pump system represents Man vs. Nature, one of the 3 primary themes of conflict in any literature. Elvis and his host walk “east” to Jackson Square, giving us a pretty specific location and direction of travel. Anyone who has visited the French Quarter knows the presence of a person with a top hat is nothing out of the ordinary. French Quarter traffic is perhaps the worst I’ve experienced. It’s not the density of traffic, it’s the rudeness and lack of consideration of the drivers towards pedestrians, traffic signals, and crosswalks. For as much as New Orleans tries to be a tourist town, the people would just as soon run one over as serve a crab boil or etouffee.

When you read, does your author build a evocative and interesting geographical environment? Does your author embed real world places, streets, locations, restaurants which help to bring their characters to life? Does the author include bits of history, the evolution of a place, something geographers called “sequent occupance?” Does the author include other bits of societal elements, such as changes in race relationships? Does the author include biogeography? Nature, the natural environment around a place, can be as important as any other aspect of the story, the physical setting is the physical geography of a tale. Good authors will infuse their stories with these elements without necessarily telling the reader, “Hey, this is geography! Pay attention!” When these elements are missing, though, readers can tell. When asked, “Hey did you like that book by S. Andso?” if you find yourself saying, “Eh, it was OK; I just felt something was missing.” Maybe what is noticed is the lack of spirit geography can instill within a story, enriching details, bringing relevance and the ability to identify and establish a foundation people can identify with. It could be the writer is not a very good geographer.

“Voodoo River” is quick-paced. Crais comes from a line of writers whose linguist brevity makes most every sentence mean something. His stories are action driven. Readers learn about his characters because they are doing something. Long exposition and back story are not part of Crais’ works, nor Lee Child’s, for the most part. Any relevant history we learn through conversation or library or newspaper archive research by Elvis. This is how readers should discover plot details, not through long explanatory thoughts communicated by the characters through the author.

Readers of Crime/Suspense novels will enjoy the distraction of Elvis Cole and his sidekick, Joe Pike. They make for an interesting duo. Sure, your life will not be improved directly by the novel, but if you read for details, read for the geography, you might learn something. And by doing so you might be distracted from work stress long enough to appreciate the downtime.

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