Dolores Redondo is one of Spain’s most popular and bestselling authors. But in the Acknowledgements to her new novel, The North Face of the Heart, she writes: “I’ve traveled the whole world over, but my home is still New Orleans.” Redondo certainly knows New Orleans. According to an author’s note, she began writing this novel on April 16, 2017, while staying at the Dauphine Orleans Hotel in the French Quarter. She finished it two years later in room 105 at the same hotel.
Translated into English by the skilled Michael Meigs, The North Face of the Heart focuses on Amaia Salazar, a detective from the north of Spain, who is dispatched to the FBI in Quantico to help track down a serial killer. Amaia still has nightmares about her troubled childhood when she was tormented by her mother. But even as a young girl, those around her knew she possessed special abilities to see the patterns and motivations of others. As an investigator, those “hunches,” often lead her to focus on a suspect that others dismiss. After she solves the case of a missing nurse in Pamplona, she comes to the attention of FBI Special Agent Dupree.
The two are well matched, both dealing with secrets and traumas from the past. Amaia is the youngest of three daughters born to Rosario, a socialite, and Juan, a baker. While her sisters were doted upon by their mother, Rosario targeted her anger, fueled most likely by her bipolar illness, on Amaia. While Juan loves Amaia, he is intimated by Rosario and fails to protect his daughter. Engrasi, Juan’s sister, steps in to save her niece, moving her into her home and refusing to be frightened by Rosario.
Dupree, born and raised in New Orleans, still has relatives there and is haunted by a case he was never able to solve, the abduction of several young Black girls. When the hunt for the serial killer leads his team to New Orleans, Dupree sees another chance to right a past wrong.
Redondo’s plot is ingenious. A serial killer operates during catastrophic weather events when authorities often attribute the deaths to the hurricane or tornado, not an unlikely scenario. Once Amaia comes on board, however, she quickly discerns that these deaths are not accidental but the work of a killer who believes he is being sent signs from God to weed out sinners. After Amaia spots that a violin is being left at each crime scene, the suspect is called “The Composer.”
Hoping to get one step ahead of the killer, the team departs for Louisiana where weather reports are dire. Forecasters predict that Hurricane Katrina will deal an even more serious blow to New Orleans than Hurricane Betsy, which brought widespread damage to the Gulf Coast in 1965. That hurricane was A Category 4 hurricane, while Katrina is being tagged as Category 5, so everyone is bracing for a truly devastating event.
Even if you didn’t live in areas affected by Katrina, we’ve all seen photos of the destruction and deaths that rained down on the areas in the hurricane’s path. Redondo has done her research and brings us inside the flooded homes, the bloated streets, and the Superdome, where people fled for safety and, instead, entered hell. Nana, who is coaxed out of her home by her nephew, Bobby, and his mother, soon regrets her decision. She’s able to get a seat in the huge sports venue, but when she ventures into a bathroom, she sees a group of men raping a woman. Her efforts to intervene, result in her being injured, aggravating a hip injury. When the roof of the Superdome collapses, water rains down on those seeking shelter, taking the situation from bad to beyond worse.
Hunting for a serial killer in the midst of one of the worst hurricanes to ever hit America’s shores creates obstacles for the team. Amaia is able to identify The Composer’s next target, but the team gets to the home too late. The killer targets families with a father, mother, grandmother, two sons, and a daughter, the exact profile of his original family who met their deaths by his hand. The bodies are laid side by side facing north. And, that violin is laid at the scene.
Besides Amaia, her family (most show up in flashbacks), and Dupree, the other characters are no less interesting. Two New Orleans police detectives, who know their city well, join the team. Another FBI agent in Miami, where one lead pops up, turns into a distraction and comes close to derailing the entire investigation.
Redondo also nails the people who create the truly unique culture of New Orleans, those who practice Voodoo, the medicine men, and the individuals who live in the swamps. She also manages to capture the spirit that is apparent in this very unique and most amazing American city, with people who are loyal, resilient, and able to survive anything, even serial killers and hurricanes.
The North Face of the Heart is a tour de force, a mystery with a complicated plot, intriguing characters, and vivid descriptions that bring the settings alive. I visited New Orleans with my family four years ago. I can’t wait to go back, this time staying at the Dauphine Orleans Hotel.
The North Face of the Heart
Translated by Micheal Meigs
Top Bigstock photo: New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina