If there’s truth in Theodore Roosevelt’s proverbial “Nobody cares how much you know, until they know how much you care,” then George Sanchez’s third Jeff Chaussier New Orleans mystery, A PLACE UNCHANGED, might qualify as its vessel. After future wife Bryna’s abduction, wayfaring actor Chaussier calls on—among others—friends like former Marine/present-day female impersonator Tommy and martial arts-practicing wife Mrs. Tommy, dock-worker Hank (aka Paul Bunyan), the Cupcake Kid, police captain Ramirez, and learns how adversity reveals character . . . for good or ill.
Searching for Bryna, struggling to maintain hope, Chaussier steels himself for the worst. The New Orleans cultural dynamic, like other port cities, historically was driven by an unspoken “agreement” between lawbreakers and lawmakers. But post-WWII drug money—tons of it—shattered that, bought people and protection. Persons became means to an end, mere objects, useful or disposable. When the authorities determine Bryna was snatched simply because the original targets were out of reach, Chaussier realizes the magnitude of her captors’ soulless insanity. A PLACE UNCHANGED, exploring with some humor the liminal zone between mystery and social decay, is likely to prove divisive. Impressively, there’s not a mean bone in its body.
The book could’ve benefited from stronger line-editing, particularly in clarifying noun/pronoun antecedents in sections featuring multiple characters. More glaring is the decision to replace industry standard quotation marks (“) with triple hyphens (—) to set off dialogue. While this formal innovation worked for James Joyce’s ULYSSES, here it’s disorienting. Additionally, too much “breaking the fourth wall,” or winking at the reader, is present in Chaussier’s thought-stream. Were he an unoriginal macho type, this quickly would become intrusive, but the author renders him in sharper tones. Likable characters being an apparent necessity in genre fiction, Sanchez, much to his credit, plays with that notion by creating a few who’re amiable, sexy, and wholly deceptive.
Within the novel’s swirl of events, there are valuable lessons. Life (especially in New Orleans) often can strike us as absurd; morality frequently is bypassed for situational ethics; paradoxically, justice—like revenge—proves to be a meal best served cold. Akin to Carl Hiaasen’s darkly comedic novels, A PLACE UNCHANGED shows us that life, in order to be bearable, must have meaning. Even if—through love, loneliness, and labor—we must provide it.
Despite infrequent glitches, A PLACE UNCHANGED snares the reader’s attention, builds suspense, and pays off (pun there) promissory notes vital to a contemporary mystery—plus it’s funny.
~William Grabowski for IndieReader