Interview by Crime Fiction Coordinator Scott Montgomery
Let The Devil Out is Bill Loehfelm’s fourth book featuring Maureen Coughlin, once a cocktail waitress with addiction issues, now a new patrolwoman in New Orleans. The militia group she dealt with in Doing The Devil’s Work returns, with Maureen reluctant to work with the FBI, but ready to take the militia group on. We caught up with Bill to ask him a few questions.
MysteryPeople Scott: Once again you put Maureen through the ringer with the events from previous books also taking a toll on her. What did you want to explore about her this time?
Bill Loehfelm: I felt it was time for her face down some of the psychological and emotional things she’s been turning away from since she moved the New Orleans. She’s done a geographic cure for the trauma she endured in New York (in The Devil She Knows), and she’s made significant changes in her life, but there’s darkness and rage in her that she’s never faced, and those emotions have started leaking out of her in bad ways. I wanted this book to present a real moment of truth for her. She’s started down the path toward corruption and self-destruction in the last two books, toward letting the evil in others rule her life, and she needs to make some crucial choices.
MPS: You return to the Sovereign Citizens as one of your antagonists. What did you want to convey about militia groups?
BL: In LaPlace, Louisiana, in 2012, four sheriffs deputies were shot, two of them killed. The first was shot attempting an arrest, and the other three in a trailer park ambush later that night. Researching that incident, I learned the people behind the shootings claimed to be Sovereign Citizens, an anti-government, anti-law enforcement belief system I’d never heard of before. I dig deeper and I find out that Timothy McVeigh, who blew up the federal building in Oklahoma City, considered himself a sovereign citizen. I’m doing this research around the time of the Cliven Bundy standoff, when these anti-government militia groups from around the country are taking up arms against federal officers. These things seem like major issues to me.
People in these so-called patriot groups have been assassinating law enforcement personal for years, all across the country. The FBI considers these groups the greatest extant threat to law enforcement in the country. When you look closely at some of them, they’re indistinguishable in their beliefs, and their messaging and sometimes their actions, from terrorist groups. These groups seem to me the embodiment of the level of hatred and violence and gun worship that we accept in this country. And of the double standard we accept when it comes to which people we “allow” to be armed. American gun worship, especially among white men, fascinates and terrifies me. And, as always, there are powerful people cashing in, whether it’s in dollars or votes, on all of this hate and anger while they suffer none of the consequences.
I found putting a fierce, idealistic, damaged woman up against all that really compelling.
MPS: You have Maureen working with the FBI. What kind of tension does that provoke?
BL: First off, nobody likes being told what to do, to feel like they’re being babysat, especially in their own backyard. I think it provokes a unique tension for anyone on the NOPD since they’re already under the watchful eye of the Justice Department. For Maureen, she’s worried like she often is that the powerful men around her are using her, that they see her as weak. Add to that how she wants desperately to fit in with and be accepted by her fellow officers. Being perceived as carrying the FBI’s water is not going to help with that. She already feels like an outsider trying to fight her way into something.
MPS: Your police characters range from the idealistic, corrupt, to just-doing-the-job. What should people know about the NOPD?
BL: That the NOPD, like any police department is not a monolithic entity of drones. That, like any group that shares an identity, a uniform, a cause or a calling, the worst of them don’t speak for all of them. I think also that we have in many of our civil institutions people who are laboring inside a broken system, a system that can frustrate the best of intentions and that can facilitate the worst of intentions. I just want people to remember that our city and our problems, that their city and its problems, are complicated, and that we should resist falling for easy answers, for oversimplifications, no matter how righteous they make us feel.
MPS: Your Staten Island books were stand alones. What has it been like working with one character in a series?
BL: I really like it. It forces me to dig deep into the character, to push her. And to grow the world she lives in. I’ve got to grow this ensemble around her, too. Preacher, Atkinson, her mom, all of them. It makes the writing experience so immersive. I think I prefer it to starting over with every book. And even after nineteen years here, I still find New Orleans endlessly fascinating. It’s like looking at a river; you never see the same city twice.
MPS: I’ll be in New Orleans in September. Where’s a good place to go, that few tourists know about?
BL: You should get to Mid-City. See City Park and Bayou St. John and get dinner on Esplanade Avenue. And the bars and clubs on St. Claude. Every kind of music there is, every night of the week.
Come by BookPeople Tuesday, August 2nd, at 7 PM, for a panel discussion on “New Voices of Noir.” Joining us for the panel discussion are crime writers Bill Loehfelm, Megan Abbott, Alison Gaylin, and William Boyle. You can find copies of Let The Devil Out on our shelves and via bookpeople.com.