Sunday, April 12, 2015

BLOOD IN THE LAKE

A friend in Washington, D.C. who was once a resident of New Iberia, Louisiana recently wrote that she had heard from several sources that Teche country was undergoing some kind of "literary renaissance"—authors were launching their books in all corners of Acadiana. I agreed with her, and yesterday I attended another notable launch by retired District Judge Anne Simon, the book signing of Blood In the Lake. This novel is a legal thriller that combines the author's intelligence, humor, and knowledge of the law and is a fascinating read by a professional expert in courtroom drama. She's also a cogent example of an author whose writing style has been influenced by romantic Teche country: "We could barely see the bayou through the trees—a shimmering stream of dark roast coffee undulating half a football field below the house... The Bayou Teche in south Louisiana casts a spell, an inspiration for poets and a perfectly legal narcotic for the enchantment of those lucky enough to spend time on her shores..."

Blood In the Lake is the second of Simon's crime novels and is a story combining exciting courtroom scenes, moral dilemmas, romance, rich settings, and a line-up of colorful characters. The protagonist, Mandy Aguillard, an intern in the office of a New Iberia District Attorney, is drawn into a hunt for the killer of her grandfather, the patriarch of the Boudreaux clan who is victimized by principals in an illegal drug trade centered near Lake Peigneur. Mandy shows the action of the hunt in a strong voice that creates an empathetic connection to the Boudreaux family, harnessing the plot and moving it forward in well-constructed flow.

Mandy becomes romantically involved with Tom Barnett, a District Attorney who is the prosecutor in the case against her grandfather's killer. As the protagonist, Mandy provides the reader with a sense of immediacy that builds intense suspense, and Simon handles this expertly, carrying the reader toward impending disaster and ultimately placing Mandy in a dangerous situation that ends in a tragic denouement, which seems right for the story.

Simon's descriptions of bayou country involve all five senses, and she treats the reader to strong images; e.g., a nugget of information about Louisiana's Great Egret: "To my left, a Great Egret strolled through the muddy shallows. He stopped. Drawing up one twig-thin leg, he dangled his skinny, three-inch long, coal-black toes above the mirrored surface of the lake. Stretching his neck, he rotated slowly to survey the scene. Satisfied to find everything in order, he tipped his head ten degrees and pointed one beady eye downward into the murky water covering his feet..." Here, geography segues into vivid description without disturbing the flow of the story—the description assists the plot without overcoming the story line.

While the major characters in Blood In the Lake are portrayed as investigative personalities involved in the legal profession, Simon also achieves authenticity in her Cajun family characterizations; e.g., a scene with "PawPaw," Mandy's grandfather: "PawPaw loved his coffee hour with the boys. Every morning, around eleven o'clock, he and a half-dozen of his buddies gathered at Thibodeaux's Grocery in Coteau—not another town, just the settlement to the northwest. They tipped back in wooden chairs and propped their boots up on an old pot-bellied stove. The stove would've been cold in the late summer, but it crackled with fire in the winter. The boys at Thib's had very little concern for national or international affairs. Once they'd exchanged information about the height of the sugarcane and the going price for sugar and rice, they moved on to the political maneuvering for the next election. PawPaw would say it used to be so simple to know how everyone stood on the issues and to keep track of who supported who when everyone was either Long or an Anti-Long. Now things were all mixed up. You couldn't predict how a politician would turn out. They'd tell you one thing and do another..."

A long passage about 'Tienne, a family member who had spent two tours of duty in Vietnam, that ends in the poignant words, "I sat there safe under a tin roof and sent them out, one after another—to die," provides a traumatic experience in the story line that nuances the Boudreaux's "personal code" or the "character" of the family that produces the protagonist Mandy.   

A house fire and injury to a woman living in a trailer on Captain Cade Road near New Iberia, adds to the villainous atmosphere and to the suspicion that a sociopath operates in the quiet countryside surrounding the Queen City of the Teche. Dialogue in Blood In the Lake gives the reader a flavor of regional speech and stands the test of being read aloud. Mandy's voice is especially distinct and helps reveal motives, as well as develops the mood of the novel. She bears out Michael Connelly's adage: "There is a quality of redemption to anything that is true character...where a personal code is forged..."

Simon's experience in the courtroom and her passionate interest in the justice process makes this legal thriller a "must read," and she takes her place in the evolving "literary renaissance" in New Iberia, Louisiana of which my friend in Washington, D.C. spoke. The brilliant cover painting of Blood In the Lake was rendered by Nan Landry, also of New Iberia, and sets the tone for this arresting crime story. Another of Landry's paintings appeared on the cover of Simon's first crime novel, Blood in the Cane Field.


Brava Anne and Nan. May your tribe of readers increase!
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