Of New Orleans, Loas, and Social Justice – The People’s Police by Norman Spinrad

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Lots of cities around the world are considered magical: Cairo, London, Paris, Baghdad, Kyoto – just to name a few. Most of the time, it’s because these cities have the weight of history lying heavy on their streets and buildings. Old places accumulate stories after all, old cities especially so. But when most people think about cities in the United States, magic isn’t usually the first thing that comes to mind. Part of it is because most American cities are pretty young compared to their counterparts elsewhere in the globe; the oldest city in the United States is St. Augustine in Florida, and at 452 years old it’s practically a newborn compared to, say, Rome (founded on April 21, 753 BCE), or to Damascus (founded in the third millennium BCE and the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world).

But just because American cities don’t have history literally seeping out of every hidden corner and building foundation doesn’t mean they are completely without their own brand of magic. Some do have a kind of quirkiness and weight to them that makes it feel like there’s something more beneath the surface, a little extra something that’s difficult to describe. And if there is any American city that best fits that description, it is definitely New Orleans. And New Orleans is the setting for Norman Spinrad’s novel, The People’s Police.

The People’s Police is set in a near-future version of New Orleans, in which powerful hurricanes are normal and most everything beyond what has been dubbed “New Orleans Proper” is called the Alligator Swamp: a place that’s “a cross between a Third World version of a country-mouse Venice and the long-gone true bayou country of zydeco-mourned forlorn Cajun lore.” Martin Luther Martin is from the Alligator Swamp, but has managed to claw his way out of the mud and muck to become a police officer. However, when he is forced to serve his own eviction notice, he realises that something has to change.

So he decides to draw attention to his cause the best way he knows how: by going on live television – and the hottest show on TV at the moment is one headlined by Mama Legba, a voodoo queen who claims that the loas speak through her. Martin doesn’t necessarily believe in that particular claim, but who is he to judge when appearing on her show will get him the attention he needs? It’s just a publicity stunt, right?

But when Martin’s publicity stunt turns into something so much more, he realises that he has set in motion a series of events that could change the Big Easy for the better – or for the worse.

This is the first book of Spinrad’s that I’ve ever read, and I got to admit: I was kind of nervous going in. After all, even though I was drawn to the concept (Voodoo? Loas? Mardi Gras? Like I’d turn that down!), I’m also entirely aware that a story can be made or broken by the quality of the writing. I might adore the concept to bits, but if the writing is bad I won’t be able to finish it – or I might finish it, but only so I have justified complaining rights.

Fortunately, I didn’t have to worry – Spinrad’s writing is absolutely superb. The narrative alternates between a more traditional third-person singular narrative used by most of the characters, and the first-person narrative used by Jean-Baptiste LaFitte – the very first character the reader meets by virtue of the fact that he narrates the first chapter. And I have to say, I love that Spinrad chose to open this novel with the slick, sly, fast-talking LaFitte, because it is LaFitte’s narration that sets the internal rhyme and rhythm of the novel’s narrative as a whole. The musicality and wit of LaFitte’s narrative style is the beat to which the rest of the novel dances – something which some readers might like, and others might dislike. For my part, though, I was thoroughly hooked from the moment LaFitte began his patter in the first chapter, and I truly think this story would be a whole lot less fun if it had been narrated in any other way.

And speaking of fun, that’s a good word to describe the other characters in this story – and boy, are they characters. LaFitte is definitely one, sure, but Martin Luther Martin and MaryLou Boudreau are amazing standouts too. What makes them such standouts, though, is how grey their morals are. None of them might be considered an absolutely good person, but then they’re not bad people either. They make mistakes, sure, and those mistakes can (and do) land them and those around them in very hot water, but they do what they can to correct those mistakes, and more importantly, they do what they must in order to survive. As LaFitte says: “Those who adapt survive. … Those who don’t ain’t been heard from lately.”

But what really makes this novel worth reading isn’t the narrative style (though that is a good reason to at least start this book) or the characters, but the themes that Spinrad tackles in it. At first glance, The People’s Police might not seem like a very political book, but it won’t take long for the reader to realise that this is a very political book indeed. Racism, misogyny, police brutality, climate change, economic inequality – almost every important sociopolitical and economic issue that’s made headlines in the United States is addressed in some way, shape, or form in this book. The good thing is that Spinrad doesn’t make it too heavy – none of those issues are treated lightly, certainly, but neither does Spinrad hit the reader over the head with them, either. This means that the plot keeps moving along, and the reader can laugh when there’s a reason to laugh, but said reader is always aware that this book is dealing with the weighty issues pertinent to everyone’s lives today – inside or outside the United States.

Overall, The People’s Police is an amazing five-star read that is much deeper than its blurb might lead the reader to believe. There is magic here, yes, and there is Mardi Gras, but Spinrad uses those elements and a snappy, witty narrative style to keep the story moving – a story that deals with some of the darker, harsher realities of the world in a way that highlights them without smacking the reader over the head with them.

The People’s Police is available from Amazon in a variety of formats; click on the link to find them all.

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