Sometimes I find a novel that so successfully melds place, character, and story it is hard to determine what makes reading it so compelling. The Lower Quarter is such a novel.
The place is New Orleans, specifically the Lower Quarter, the more residential and less touristy section of the French Quarter, just five weeks or so after Katrina. The characters are each survivors of personal trauma as well.
Johanna, an art restorer, had lost both parents back in her Eastern European homeland and then fell into the sex trade. She was rescued by Clay, the last descendant of an old and wealthy New Orleans family, who harbors a deep hatred for his controlling father while indulging in what can only be called psychopathic pastimes. Elizam, recently released from prison for stealing his own painting, is on his first big case as a detective for the Lost Art Register. He is no hardened criminal but he does “depend on his own definition of rightful” when it comes to ownership of art. Marion has also outlived two parents and watched her only sibling descend into drug addiction. She tends bar, is a frustrated painter and hires out as a dominatrix when money is tight.
These characters circle into each others orbits due to a lost painting, stolen two decades ago in Belgium. The mystery of its whereabouts pulls them into an ever-narrowing gyre. What becomes clear as the story progresses is that a very bad man, who was murdered in a hotel just days before the hurricane hit the quarter, was connected to an even more evil guy with enough power to harm anyone in his way.
Elise Blackwell brings her characters ever so tantalizingly into focus while she builds the suspense with a sustained underlying creepiness. Touches of noir and a chilling atmosphere of danger infect the story even while the characters move through their days seemingly unconcerned. Johanna is aware of the stakes involved but she is more caught up in a thirst for revenge and Eli operates in a state of slight delirium as he falls in love with her. Marion is worried about her brother and deep into a strange relationship with Clay, the only one who actually has a plan.
As the climax of what amounts to a thriller comes to a head, the reader realizes that none of these people has the least concern about crime, dishonesty, or personal safety. Because as it turns out, and maybe this is true of most people in real life, what each wants is to find a way to outlive or to overcome the disasters that have befallen them.
Eventually Eli crosses a certain line as he feels “his moral compass align with Johanna and Johanna alone.” I finished the book wondering if there even is such a thing as a moral compass. Though the style is unmistakably literary, I can see why two of the blurbs on the back cover invoked the noir atmosphere. Just wait until you find out where that painting ends up.