By Margot Doualhy; reviewed by Jeannette Hartman
If you like reverent, traditional nuns this book isn’t for you.
It isn’t that Sister Holiday Walsh of the Sisters of the Sublime Blood isn’t pious. She is. She’s deeply committed to becoming a changed person by following in the footsteps of Jesus and bringing light into a dark world.
But she’s about 40 years younger than her three fellow sisters at the New Orleans convent. She’s tattooed from chin to wrists, and all points in between. She has badly bleached hair with black roots. She’s a lesbian, although no longer practicing.
She’s skipping a Sunday evening teachers meeting to smoke a cigarette she confiscated from one of her students in a hidden alley when she sees “livid flames (stabbing) through an open window” at Saint Sebastian school. A flaming body drops from the second floor and hits the ground. When she runs to help, she discovers it’s the convent’s custodian, Jack Corolla.
She runs in to make sure no one else is there and finds two students, one gashed by exploding glass and the other with a broken ankle. She gets one out and the fire fighters get out the other one.
There’s no shortage of suspects here from Prince Dempsey, the lighter-flicking, pit bull-leading scholarship student; to the prim and tightly wound science teacher Rosemary Flynn, who knows how fire behaves; to the vodka-tippling history teacher John Vander Kitt, who has a disabled wife; to the Vietnamese custodian Bernard Pham, an aspiring musician.
Sister Holiday finds one of her regulation black shirts with a burned sleeve in her classroom wastebasket. When a second fire occurs in the cafeteria and Sister Therese is found dead nearby, Holiday finds one of her guitar picks nearby. Her mail is torn open and her few belongings disturbed in her room. Is she being framed?
Most of Sister Holiday’s sleuthing seems to focus on needling Fire Investigator Magnolia “Maggie” Riveaux and New Orleans Police detectives Reggy Grogan and Ruby Decker for information.
Sister Holiday appears to be a complete misfit at the convent. She says of her sisters, “We were as different from one another as the book of Leviticus to the Song of Songs to the Book of Judith.” She has nothing but scorn for the bishop and his two vicars, nicknaming them “The Don, the Ghoul and the Beard.” A reader has to ask why Holiday joined the order in the first place. That becomes a mystery within the mysteries of the fires at Saint Sebastian.
This book is well-written and full of vivid phrases: she describes a Sunday evening sun as “the swollen red of a mosquito bite”; parishioners in church “so alone, they’ve thinned to ghosts”; and “gauzy tides of heat” in New Orleans’ humidity.
SCORCHED GRACE is full of interesting, well-drawn characters. It’s an entertaining read. Even so, it doesn’t entirely deliver on its promise. Sister Holiday’s sleuthing isn’t inspired and you can see the solution coming. At times, it’s hard to believe this situation could be real.
The Author: Margot Doualhy
Margot Douaihy was born and raised in Scranton, PA. Her family has Lebanese origins.
She earned a bachelor’s degree in writing from the University of Pittsburgh, a master’s degree in creative and life writing from Goldsmiths, University of London, and a doctorate in creative writing from the University of Lancaster.
She is a co-editor of the Cambridge University Press ELEMENTS IN CRIME NARRATIVES series and the editor/advisor of NORTHERN NEW ENGLAND REVIEW.
She has taught at Marywood University and the Creative Alliance of New Orleans. She currently teaches creative writing and editing/publishing at Franklin Pierce University in Rindge, NH.
SCORCHED GRACE was named a Most Anticipated Debut of 2023 by Goodreads, Crime Reads, LGBTQ Reads, Bookpage, Barnes & Noble, Book Riot, Electric Lit, Novel Suspects, them, Amazon and The Lineup.
Her books, BANDIT/QUEEN: THE RUNAWY STORY OF BELLE STARR (2022) and SCRANTON LACE (2018) are documentary poetry projects focusing on themes of “queerness, feminist becoming, and class tensions.”
She earned a 2021 Mass Cultural Council’s Artist Fellowship, a 2019 Sisters in Crime Academic Research Grant and the 2018 Jesse H. Neal / Mattera Award for outstanding mentorship in the publishing industry.
She lives and works in Northampton, MA.
#margotdouaihy #scorchedgrace #jeannettehartman