New Orleans is a town that has always been ripe for crime fiction. One of the latest practitioners is Bill Loehfelm who, much like his series character, cocktail waitress-turned-cop Maureen Coughlin, is a transplant from Staten Island to New Orleans. Loehfelm’s latest is Doing The Devil’s Work. He joins us for Noir at the Bar Monday, February 16, at Opal Divine’s on South Congress. Here, Bill talks about his adopted city and how it applies to his books.
MysteryPeople: What makes New Orleans such a great city to write about?
Bill Loehfelm: The familiar refrain is that all the crime, corruption, and the abundance of general weirdness leaves a writer with no shortage of material. While that’s true, there’s more to it. There’s incredible and singular beauty here, natural and human, and such complicated history, and one inexplicable moment happens after another. Just the other day, I walk out my front door in the middle of the afternoon and a couple of blocks down Third Street, someone in full Native American regalia is riding a horse along Constance Street through the Irish Channel. That kind of thing happens all the time.
Also, New Orleans is made up of such a complex tangle of subcultures, from the city and civil services to the Mardi Gras krewes to the different neighborhoods, even certain streets – exploring them, trying to translate them and present them, not just how they look but how they function, is fascinating. People really put their imaginations to work down here. I’m just trying to keep up.
MP: How has it shaped Maureen?
BL: She hasn’t been in New Orleans that long, so I think the way it shapes her the most is though what the city inspires in her. For the first time in her life, she wants to belong somewhere. She wants to fit in very badly in a city that’s virtually impossible to understand. And her social skills aren’t very good to begin with. Writing her relationship with the city at times feels very much like writing about someone falling in love. This growing passion for the city, the desire to be accepted and to understand and be understood, these feelings cause a lot of conflict in her.
MP: What is the biggest misconception about the city?
BL: I think the biggest general misconception is that New Orleans is just a big theme park. Like the city is some kind of Deep South Disney World for adults, and we’re all here to serve the tourists. Y’all are always invited, but the parties we throw are for us. That we’re all functional alcoholics because our drinking laws are, shall we say, casual, is another one. And that it’s a superficial decadence, that the sin is all for show – not necessarily. But we save our best sins for ourselves, as well.
And I do run into people now and then surprised to find the city isn’t still half underwater.
MP: You deal a lot with the town’s corruption. Is there something that makes it standout from other cities?
BL: I’ve never looked into other cities quite like I have New Orleans so I can’t say for sure. The motivations are certainly the same: greed, money, power. We’ve had some people go down over some pretty small stakes, a few thousand here and there, which is interesting to me. I will say our tolerance of corruption used to be a point of civic pride, but that changed after the storm. People took an ownership of the city that changed things. Not entirely, but for the better. There are thing city politicians get called out for that they never would have in the past.
MP: Your first three books took place in Staten Island. What is the biggest difference about writing in each city?
BL: One challenge is that I wrote the Staten Island books in New Orleans, which gave me a freer hand with making things up. Writing about New Orleans while living here, I leave the house to run errands and find half a dozen mistakes I made the night before while writing. It’s harder to make the necessary allowances for fiction.
Also, I think the Staten Island books have a narrower focus. Each book is as much about a family, the Sanders, the Currans, the Coughlins, as it is about the island. I didn’t write very much about the rest of the city, about the politics and civic and social structures of New York City as a whole. The New Orleans books are bigger in scope and more ambitious. Hopefully, you get just as much character, but you also get more of the intricacies of the location and the times the characters are living in.
MP: What can happen in a New Orleans crime novel, that can’t happen in any other?
BL: You can run someone over with a Mardi Gras float, I guess. We had a guy walk out of a supermarket with eight pounds of crawfish tails down his pants the other day. In a way that’s an ‘only in New Orleans’ crime. On the other hand, it’s shoplifting and petty theft, same as everywhere else. And I guess that’s New Orleans for you, kind of the same as the rest of America, and all its own place, both at the same time.
You can find copies of Doing The Devil’s Work on our shelves and via bookpeople.com. Copies will also be available for purchase at Noir at the Bar. Noir at the Bar starts at 7pm on Monday, February 16, at Opal Divine’s.