As a city riddled with contradictions, New Orleans is the perfect stomping grounds for Sister Holiday Walsh: a queer, chain-smoking, tattooed, gold-toothed, former punk rocker — and a nun.
Sister Holiday is the main character in Margot Douaihy’s brash debut crime novel, the mystery “Scorched Grace.” It's the first novel to launch Gillian Flynn (“Gone Girl”) Books, a new imprint under Zando Projects.
"Scorched Grace," released serendipitously on Mardi Gras, is planned as the first installment in the Sister Holiday Mystery trilogy. The book explores demonic criminal behavior but also the personal demons haunting Sister Holiday, who must wrestle with some very old skeletons in her closet.
After finishing “Blessed Water,” the second book in the trilogy, Douaihy is on a national book tour for “Scorched Grace.” She says a screen version is likely in the future.
"There has been significant screen interest and multiple, compelling TV adaptation offers," the author said.
Iconoclast and poet
Douaihy knows a thing or two about the many facets of Sister Holiday. Both the writer and her character are iconoclasts who don’t quite fit in with the tenets of the Catholic Church.
Longing to be part of her own family’s religious tradition, but having qualms about the church’s stance on many issues, including homosexuality, Douaihy didn’t come out of the closet for a very long time. Eventually, she distanced herself from the church. She likes to say that art is her religion.
The author’s journey began writing books of poetry (“Scranton Lace”, “Girls Like You”), and documentary poetry (“Bandit/Queen: The Runaway Story of Belle Starr”). There are still elements of that milieu in the rhythmic, descriptive passages that permeate this novel.
Her metaphors about New Orleans, where she lived for over two years, are visceral: “mold blooming on the walls like tarmac black rashes” or “music as the connective tissue of New Orleans: there when you need it, like prayer.”
“Poetry was my first love, because I was mesmerized by the riddles and clue work within it,” Douaihy said. “Poetry was like a different language. There were subtexts everywhere, and so much that was unsaid. I wrote poetry exclusively from age 12 to 32, which eventually shape-shifted into longer poems with more dialogue.
"The parallel for me was always mysteries, being a Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys fan from early on. There was guilt, blame, justice and so many underlying motives.”
A suspicious fire
Her first loves have now coalesced into a page-turning whodunnit, which places Sister Holiday at the scene of an arson at her own Saint Sebastian's School.
With the building in flames, she witnesses an employee fall to his death from a second-story window, and rushes in to help anyone else who might be trapped inside.
Her good Samaritan act only results in becoming a person-of-interest in an ongoing investigation. Not one to suffer fools lightly, and finding the investigation at the New Orleans Fire Department to be mired in chaos, Sister Holiday takes matters into her own hands and leads the charge as a member of the Sisters of the Sublime Blood.
Her journey as an amateur sleuth is fraught with twists, turns and even combativeness with colleagues and her own Sisters.
“Scorched Grace” is a study in back stories, with more character development than you ordinarily find in this genre. Just when you think you know Sister Holiday, more secrets come spewing forth.
Contours and harmony
“I love an ensemble, how people spark and catalyze perspectives in others,” Douaihy said. “It’s about the interesting contours, harmony and dissonance amongst people.
"This fictional convent has a cast of characters who all have their own foibles. I’m devoted to characters who surprise, and are a surprise to others," she said.
"I like to write against type, and challenge the assumptions that people make about nuns, teachers or whoever, because they’re not homogenous people.”
Douaihy is a teacher at Franklin Pierce University in New Hampshire, but she'll become an assistant professor of popular fiction and literature at Emerson College in Boston in August.
She is returning to New Orleans for the Tennessee Williams and New Orleans Literary Festival Thursday to Sunday (March 23-26), where she’ll be on a number of panels talking about everything from the how-to’s of writing a crime novel to the important settings in which the protagonists thrive.
Leslie Cardé can be reached at email@example.com