2022’s The Quarter Storm is the first of Veronica G. Henry’s Mambo Reina occult mystery novels.
Reina Dumond is a mambo priestess pledged to Erzulie; she follows traditions that date to a time before her ancestors were kidnapped and dragged from Benin to Haiti. Her father having brought his family from Haiti to the United States, Reina is also an American. She uses her holy calling to make a living.
New Orleans provides Reina with a multitude of potential clients. Many of them operate under a misunderstanding about the purposes to which Vodou may be put. Some of her would-be clients are downright sketchy. Take young Sophie Thibault, for example.
Sophie adores her boyfriend Virgil, but fears he does not love her to the same degree. She asks Reina to make her a magical poppet, one that would force Virgil love Sophie (as he would if he were sensible). This sort of magic is a usually a recipe for disaster but it isn’t for Reina. After a suitable warning about unintended consequences, Reina agrees to provide Sophie with the poppet.
Constructing the poppet takes time. Once it is created, Reina heads out to deliver it to Sophie. When she arrives at the address given, Reina is sure of something she suspected — Sophie lives above rival priestess Mambo Grenade’s store, Voodoo Real. Why would Sophie travel across New Orleans to engage Reina’s services when she could just ask Mambo Grenade? Reina also discovers something she did not expect: Virgil’s brutally dismembered body in the apartment above he shop.
It’s awkward that the lead investigator on the case is Reina’s ex, Detective Roman Frost. Frost isn’t stupid or particularly lazy, but he is firmly disapproving of non-Christian religions (said disapproval is the rock on which Frost and Reina’s relationship foundered). Hence it is predictable that Mambo Grenade will be blamed for the brutal murder. She is immediately arrested.
Mambo Grenade is a business rival and as the spelling of her business name suggests, she follows a different path than that taken by Reina. But Reina knows that this doesn’t make her a murderer. Moreover, even if Mambo Grenade were evil enough to kill, she’s not stupid enough to dismember someone in the apartment above her shop. She is clearly being scapegoated because of her race, her religion, and her proximity to the crime.
It would be prudent for Reina to walk away before Roman notices her. However, Reina has two things the police lack: actual, honest-to-Erzulie holy powers1 and an interest in seeing the real guilty party brought to justice. Reina sets out to do what the police cannot be bothered to do: discover who had the means, the opportunity, and the motive to kill Virgil.
There are many downsides of Reina’s decision, not least of which is that she convinces the killer that she knows too much to be left alive.
It goes without saying that Reina might have a motive to have done the murder herself, as Mambo Grenade is a rival2. But this book isn’t that Agatha Christie novel and Reina didn’t do it. Not even unintentionally. While love spells can have untoward side effects, they tend to involve issues of voluntary consent. They don’t result in dismemberment.
Roman may seem like a bad cop. This is only if you think it’s the business of the police to deter crime by arresting guilty people. It’s pretty clear that Roman and his fellow police serve mainly to maintain the existing social order. While it would be a pleasant extra if the people they arrest actually committed the crimes of which they will no doubt be convicted, that’s not the point. If at the end of the day the same people are running New Orleans as were running it in the morning, Roman has done the job he was hired to do.
Given that the social order requires persons like Reina to be exist at the lowest rung of the hierarchy (or even not to exist at all), Reina would have been wise not to have been involved with Roman in the first place. Failing that, she should tamp down any lingering attraction to him. She’s not sensible, much to her own detriment but greatly to the delicious complication of the novel’s plot.
This is a perfectly functional mystery, filled with a satisfying selection of dangers, red herrings, and plausible solutions. I enjoyed this book enough to worry that the author may notice there’s more money to be made writing non-SFF mysteries. Fortunately, I am assured of at least one sequel3.
1: Erzulie doesn’t grant powers of the sort that would immediately and unambiguously point the finger at the killer. More work for Reina, more plot.
2: It is a plot point that a recent attempt on the part of New Orleans Vodou/voodoo priests and priestesses to form a council fell apart over the question of who among equals is first. While the answer to that question seemed obvious to all the people involved, each of them had a different answer and a disinclination to compromise.
3: The Foreign Exchange, due out February 2023.