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Mississippi Valley Archaeology Center

Floodgates by Mary Anna Evans

August 1, 2009

Poisoned Pen Press: Scottsdale, AZ
2009 (HC)

In this, the fifth Faye Longchamp novel penned by Mary Anna Evans, the author provides the reader with perhaps the thinnest mystery in the series, but also the most atmospheric and evocative narrative thus far. She also continues to flesh out the main protagonists, Faye and her partner/soulmate/lover, Joe Wolf Mantooth, and the reader becomes something of a confidante of these two as they maneuver the tricky by-ways of everyday life, love and the world of the intellect.

But in a very real sense, the main protagonist of the novel is New Orleans, in the years just following Hurricane Katrina. Faye has taken a temporary leave from her doctoral studies to supervise an archaeological excavation at Chalmette, the site of the 1815 Battle of New Orleans, which is just downriver from the city itself. Katrina had destroyed the visitor center at the battlefield site and in order to re-build, an archaeological survey must be conducted. Faye hopes to use the excavation opportunity to investigate two ante-bellum plantations on the site and compare the space configuration and space usage of slave quarters and the outbuildings used by the Euroamerican slaveowners. Faye finds New Orleans and the excavation to be equally enthralling—it is not hard to imagine that the wraiths of Andrew Jackson and Jean Lafitte still haunt the battleground– and she also finds her two assistants—the bookish Nina Thibodeaux and her field tech Dauphine, who claims to be a Voodoo mambo, or priestess—to be wonderful companions and co-workers. The friendly, albeit somewhat intense young park ranger, Matt Guidry, takes Faye to see his old neighborhood near Chalmette that is still recovering from Katrina, or the “Wall of Water,” as the storm was locally known, as well as the famous or infamous Lower Ninth Ward, which suffered such destruction . It is here that Faye’s idyllic New Orleans experience runs off the rails as she witnesses the discovery of a decayed human skeleton by a Christian youth group volunteering in the Lower Ninth to salvage flood damaged homes. Has the body been there in the rubble for nearly four years? The fact that the body is weighed down by several unusual pieces of heavy debris leads Faye to the conclusion that this is not a flood victim, but rather a victim of foul play. And much to Faye’s surprise, the young and perceptive investigating officer, Jodi Bienvenu, takes Faye’s observations seriously. The victim is identified as Michelle Broussard, an archaeologist who disappeared shortly after Katrina struck, and who had used her GIS skills in the post-hurricane efforts to rescue survivors. She had also formerly worked with Faye’s assistant Nina and was related to Matt Guidry, the Chalmette park ranger!

The mystery plays out to an unanticipated climax, as the reader follows Faye, Joe, and Jodi Bienvenu track down clues that lead them step-wise back to the chaotic days that followed Katrina’s devastation of New Orleans and the failure of the levees. Along the way we are treated to an engineering history of attempts at controlling the waters that have threatened the Crescent City from its very beginnings, a wonderful description of archaeological inference drawn from scant data—in this case, evidence of folkways hinted at by unearthing two marbles, a coin with a hole drilled in it, and a British pearlware fragment formed into a disc, which may Have been used as a counter in an African game called mancala, and a learned discourse on civil engineering—Mary Anna Evans’ academic background.

But again, it is the city of New Orleans that takes center stage in the novel, and there are several vivid descriptions of the sights and sounds and smells of the city, and particularly the French Quarter. New Orleans is as much a state of mind as it is a place, and I couldn’t help but wish I were reading Floodgates on a quiet early morning (before the tourists arrive!) at the Café Du Monde, sipping strong chicory coffee and feasting on a sinfully delicious beignet! Four trowels for the fifth Faye Longchamp mystery!