Showing posts with label Jewell Parker Rhodes. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Jewell Parker Rhodes. Show all posts

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Rhodes, Voodoo Queen and Lackluster

Jewell Parker Rhodes's voodoo mystery trilogy started out with a celebrated, spirited bang; however, it ended like a teary-eyed Toni Braxton love song.  SAD PANDA INDEED!  I still recall that dazzled-tongue dude (talking about myself here) walking into a used bookstore and happening across the first book in the series, Voodoo Season.  Here he was, between the stacks, holding back a jovial scream as the synopsis read the likes of voodoo, murder mystery, and a woman of color playing as the lead.  Damnit, what more could he ask for?  So let him hear his dreams!

Well, evidently he could have asked for much more.  Hate to say it.

I’ll be first to admit that the first book in the Marie Levant Mystery series wasn’t the best piece of fiction.  To make this quick, it introduced Marie Levant, a Chicago defect who decided to port back to the South where her deceased mother’s roots lie long underneath the stretch of the famed Voodoo Queen, Marie Laveau.  Nevertheless, in doing so, Marie [Levant] becomes a doctor at New Orleans’s Charity Hospital.  This is where she runs across her first murder mystery case in the form of a seemingly dead girl wheeled into the ER.  However, this seemingly dead girl is pregnant and the baby is safely retrieved and later adopted by Marie.  As the police move in, and Marie’s fondness for the child increases, she implements herself in the case.  Marie discovers that the girl was a part of a prostitution ring and her state of zombification was brought by dark voodoo magic.  This investigation awakens Marie's own voodoo power, as well as her sleuthing skills that later go sour as the trilogy continues.

Voodoo Season had its airy moments, where swinging swirls of poetic narrative/dialogue took over the necessity for elaborating details needed to further character development and the mystery plot.  Some pages read like a James Patterson book; sparse on ink.  Nevertheless, it still contained those elements that I loved.  Marie Levant was black.  She is the ancestor of the famed and historically bona fide Voodoo Queen of Louisiana, Marie Laveau.  And while she has an appetite for sex, it doesn’t hinder her from being both an indomitable doctor at New Orleans’s Charity Hospital or an amateur sleuth.  Basically, Marie carried the book just fine for my personal taste.  Along with the other cast.  Though some are questionable, like Charity Hospital’s top dog, Dulac, and his penchant for being drunk on the job.  As well as the handsome Detective Reneaux who guides Marie on her case (or his case).  Topple in the subjects of cryptograms, death gods, ghosts, ancestral tales, and some Creole culture, and you can consider me absorbed.  Then there’s that extra layer where Rhodes demystifies some subjects pertaining to voodoo, or the Vodun religion.  The ending had a cinema exploitative reel to it, but that was actually my favorite part as Marie called on the darker voodoo gods to exact revenge for herself, the be-spelled prostitutes, and someone close to her who didn't survive.

The second book, Yellow Moon, turns its eye a little more toward the paranormal side of Marie's journey.  Citizens over the city of New Orleans are turning up dead, wheeled into Charity Hospital’s morgue in conditions mysteriously close to an immoderate case of exsanguination.  Puncture marks riddle their wrist, leading Marie, and our newly casted detective, Park, to attribute the cause of death to a type of vampiric draining.  Nevertheless, matters gather more interest for Marie as the ghost of these victims begin to haunt her, pushing her to seek their justice.  What Marie and Detective Park don’t anticipate is that an ancient, African vampire spirit called wazimamoto is behind the deaths.  Having a taste of Marie’s essence--or spirit--as the Voodoo Queen of Louisiana, the wazimamoto turns its sights on draining her to end Marie Laveau’s bloodline (can you keep up with the difference between Marie Levant and her ancestor Marie Laveau?).  As it comes to light, Marie realizes that the wazimamoto and her ancestor Marie Laveau are enemies from the past  And it’s this wazimamoto that’ll take several of Marie’s closest friends with it to death before she manages to pull all of her ancestor's powers together to stop it from taking hers.

Writing that short summary kind of made me realize that I liked the mystery of the book a lot more than that dull feeling I felt after finishing the last page.  I wouldn’t say that Yellow Moon was a complete dud, but I will say that it wasn’t as dark or swallowing as I’d anticipated.  Written much the same as the first book, it had that same airy quality of poetic prose/dialogue, however, not nearly as much.  Some events felt like an unnecessary action to the plot, including central characters’ death.  I say this mainly because it’s hard to grieve for characters that you’re expect to, yet have little awareness of them outside of their involvement with the main heroine.  In that respect, many should have survived just as Marie did, to sort of compound the trilogy and keep its character flavor.  In a roundabout way, I kind of want to blame this on how the books were released two to three years apart; Rhodes wasn't looking ahead.  However, the book did establish more of Marie’s inner struggles being a Voodooienne priestess, enough so that those struggles overpowered the hunt for the wazimamoto while exposing nuggets of information on the subject of voodoo.  Nevertheless, Rhodes made up for shuffles of plot verses complex inner monologue by introducing new themes.  Rich, authentic Jazz, African folklore, personal inner demons come manifested, and other cultural concerns were a few.  Quite frankly, Yellow Moon didn’t read like a mystery, which is the backbone of my interest in the series.  Rhodes can throw everything she can at me to tickle my interest--those are a given.  Nonetheless, I strongly, strongly need the careful sleight-of-hand of a mystery and Marie’s ability to think for herself to keep me holding on.  Yellow Moon could easily arrive on the doorstep of urban fantasy.

And that’s where my main draw with the last book, Hurricane, comes into play.  Hoping Rhodes would get back into the mystery element of the trilogy, I was let down in the final book.  From the beginning I knew something was off.  Marie is led by a vision/dream of some sort to town outside of New Orleans called DeLaire, bayou country.  An hour or two on the highway something (I emphasize “something”) causes her to pull onto the berm where she follows a path to a house.  Furthering her need to investigate, Marie uncovers the bodies of three people--it appears to be a family.  Father, mother and daughter.  Dead.  It quickly becomes obvious to Marie that they were murder, each one shot and killed as she looks closer.  Naturally, she sought the local’s police station.  There she meets Deet Malveaux, the town sheriff.  It seems that Deet was halfway expecting Marie’s presence, driven by the fact that his dying grandmother had a vision of Marie coming to save the afflicted community of DeLaire.  And those afflicted show up in droves when Deet takes Marie to his dying grandmother.  The announcement is made clear: Marie Laveau’s ancestor is there to heal the people of DeLaire.  Deet’s sheriff brother, Aaron, seems more or less impressed as he sets off to investigate Marie’s claims while she’s stuck at the Malveaux’s house attending to the line of ill towners.  Pushing medical science over shamanism for their illness upsets the desperate gathering.  Marie is mostly at a lost for their haggard cries for healing, but she deals.  Upon Aaron's return, Marie realizes through the ghosts of the murdered family that now accompanies him, that Aaron did nothing more but blaze a fire to destroy the crime scene.  In turn, concealing the murders.  The question now becomes why and what exactly is going on in the town of DeLaire?  And here I was hoping Marie would be stuck there surviving something out of a Stephen King novel where every bit of her wits are needed to find out DeLaire's secrets.

Unfortunately, it takes ages before DeLaire's secret is clear, and its unfolding is so rocky that I almost gave up.  In the end my attempt wasn’t to solve the crime before Marie.  It was to understand the crime and purpose of it.  While it later becomes clear, though nowhere near as believable or compelling as Rhodes may have hoped it would be, I still felt like there were no leads or further evidence for Marie to trace down toward the culprit of the events in DeLaire.  After the described visit, she goes back to New Orleans where she informs law enforcement there on the murders.  It’s proposed to the reader that an albino detective has his doubts, therefore, pushing Marie out of the precinct underneath an entailing fact that he is involved.  He's probably the only notable villain to the mystery, while coming across as uncompelling to the mystery.  Basically, he is not interesting as a character, and later his role provides absolutely no suspense to the already suspense less mystery.  While once again Marie loses someone close to her, it becomes evident at this point that her losing friends are a weak plot device.  I hardly gathered the feeling of despair through this lose; not as a means to sound unsympathetic, but as a means of sounding too aware of Rhodes’s techniques.  She needs to learn how to keep her characters around longer, moving and breathing well on their own before she kills them off.  And slices of back story won't do.  

With all that being said, it’s clear that above her two previous books in the series, the themes in Hurricane overrides all else without hesitation.  Here Rhodes explores not only the wake of Hurricane Katrina, but also environmental destruction and its proceeding domino effect.  She also explores racism a little more fatally here, as we later learn the township of DeLaire is paying the price of some rather ruthless others.  And where the wazimamoto played the malevolent spirit in Yellow Moon, the benevolence of an African water goddess spirit called Mami Wata helped encourage the power of Rhodes environmental theme.

In closing, I will more or less miss this series.  I give it kudos for Rhode’s proposal on exploring the subject of voodoo underneath a mystery and sassy lead.  But much of that execution did not totally win with me.  The balance between her need to unload on the reader certain interesting themes seemed to push aside the complexities of creating a profound mystery throughout each book.  And in essence, I needed that strong, powerful mystery to help fill in the desire to soak in the other elements provided by Rhodes.  So while the first bite was an unaware party on the taste buds, after awhile it didn't go down so easily.

Any thoughts on my take of Rhodes's series?  Have you read them or suggest any books piled with mysteries and voodoo spells gone wrong?  Add your comments here.

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