Editorial Review: Sinner, Saint or Serpent by John Anthony Miller
Sinner, Saint or Serpent by John Anthony Miller is a delightful mystery in which a journalist enjoys showing up the local cops using his reporter’s skills and friendly connections all over the city to search for the truth.
August Chevalier is found dead, murdered in his own New Orleans house shortly after meeting journalist Napoleon ‘Justice’ Harper for a casual interview. Justice’s natural curiosity seems to be piqued by being so close to Chevalier’s shocking murder, and therefore the murderer, and he decides to investigate. It’s an unofficial investigation, of course, since Justice is a journalist who just happens to know everyone in the city, and not actually a police officer.
Justice quickly discovers that the problem isn’t finding a potential suspect for Chevalier's murder, it’s more about narrowing down the massive list of suspects. Greedy and underhanded businessman Chevalier has so many enemies, almost everyone in New Orleans has a reasonable motive for the murder.
But three main suspects have an opportunity, as well as motive. Lucinda Boyd, a wealthy widow known for her charity projects, has recently become slightly less wealthy after Chevalier gained control of her company by buying up shares in fake names. She’s definitely got a reason to be angry, but who would suspect such an upstanding citizen?
Second, Blaze Barbeau is on her third husband, and she’d been seen with Chevalier recently. Had they been having an affair? Just why were they together?
And finally, there’s a gris-gris bag, made by Belladonna Dede, found at the murder scene. Could Belladonna have been offering more than voodoo protection charms and love potions? Meanwhile, Justice’s novel-reading colleague Remy is pretty sure Chevalier’s murder was a Mafia hit. Chevalier was so hated and so underhanded that just about anyone could be behind the murder.
Justice’s search for the truth about Chevalier's shady past leads him all over New Orleans. The mystery is solid, but the setting is where this novel really shines. 1920s New Orleans is full of live music and good food, with voodoo and speakeasies in the shadows. Even when Justice is just grabbing a bowl of gumbo or a beignet, this book offers a beautiful escape to a vibrant, fascinating city.
The minor characters are well-developed, too, with smaller stories happening all around the main mystery. Petty office rivalries, town gossip, and a cop’s baseball-playing son add to the feeling of a realistic and lively community, with Justice right at the heart of it all. Justice knows pretty much everyone in town, and with the offer of a little positive press or just his word that their secrets will stay safe, most citizens are quite happy to talk with him and spill their secrets. At the same time, his colleague Remy makes instant friends with many people and does excellent research on a wide variety of subjects. She’d call herself Justice’s partner, although he thinks she’s his assistant. Either way, their banter, and teamwork warms the whole novel.
Sinner, Saint, or Serpent is a surprising mystery, with twists right up to the very end, in a lively historical setting.