Saturday, August 20, 2016

Hard-Boiled Crime from Bill Loehfelm: LET THE DEVIL OUT

When another reviewer's comments made me itch to read LET THE DEVIL OUT by Bill Loehfelm, I realized it was the fourth in the series featuring Maureen Coughlin, and I hadn't read any yet ... in fact, somehow I missed even hearing about Bill Loehfelm. I'm glad I've caught up with his crime fiction, though, starting with the first in the series, The Devil She Knows.

Maureen Coughlin at this opening looks like she's already sliding downhill fast in life: waitressing in her second Staten Island bar, making poor choices, and stringing herself along by balancing her ups and downs with booze and cocaine. The apparent suicide of the bar owner arrives in parallel with invasive and terrifying threats to Maureen herself, and soon she's sure she's been a witness to part of a criminal operation, embedded in city politics and of course money and power.

Making bad choices includes, in this case, trying to chase the head of the criminal operation herself. Maureen's effort to confront the face of evil puts her into far more danger; The Devil She Knows is downright scary to read, while at the same time almost impossible to put down. Those decisions are only a hair's distance from ones we've all considered at some point, and we're just better protected, less foolhardy, probably less brave than Maureen Coughlin.

When I plunged into this summer's release of LET THE DEVIL OUT, I'd skipped the second and third titles, The Devil in Her Way and Doing the Devil's Work, but Loehfelm brushes the important changes into the fourth book swiftly and effectively. Maureen's now an rookie officer with the New Orleans Police Department, carrying her wounds as impetus for a crime-solving career. She's "Coughlin" or OC, for Officer Coughlin, to most around her.

But at this point, Maureen Coughlin is also Seriously Messed Up. Tossed aside for six weeks of forced leave because of actions she'd taken against a crooked fellow cop, she's back to abusing drugs and has a new obsession: Let's call it a nasty form of vigilante action. "Instead of going home like she should have, she had restarted that night's mission." It made her feel alive, and in control, and more: an almost sexual sense of complete exhilaration. And she knows it's a terrible mistake.
So wise of you, Maureen. Every step of the way. You're letting him burn you down, she thought, from beyond the grave. After everything you did to get away from him.

How stupid can you be?
The death of a young woman Maureen's been trying to locate, the murderously disturbed Madison Leary, pulls Maureen back into official action. Looks like the Klan's form of evil has resurfaced in New Orleans with a group called The Watchmen, and soon Maureen makes herself a target. Her inner demons make it all extra dangerous. I was frankly appalled at how much risk she pulled toward herself, and how much anger and pain she carried ... but also recognized the situation as true enough to life.

What impresses me most in LET THE DEVIL OUT is Loehfelm's deft portrayal of what it costs to make a decision to change -- to exorcise the demons that drive us. Every move Maureen makes carries a price, and she is excruciatingly aware of that mathematics of pain. Loehfelm's laying out of the choices she confronts is engrossing, compelling ... an American version of Lisbeth Salander's journey, with considerably more hope allowed to tug at the readers. A must-read, and exactly the right balance of hard-boiled and self-revealing.

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