Flames flicker around the edges of Margot Douaihy’s Scorched Grace, casting light and revealing darkness, hinting at the sort of destruction that offers the possibility of a new beginning.
That’s what Sister Holiday Walsh was looking for a year ago when she joined the Sisters of the Sublime Blood after fleeing the wreckage of her life in Brooklyn, New York. Sister Holiday is not a typical nun: While she and her brother, Moose, were raised Catholic by her former-nun mom and police captain dad, being wholly reverent has never been her thing. Rather, she’s the self-described “first punk nun,” a heavily tattooed loner who hides her ink under scarf and gloves and conceals her trauma under a jauntily sarcastic demeanor.
Although she’s somewhat found her footing as a music teacher at Saint Sebastian’s, the New Orleans school the nuns oversee, Sister Holiday’s emotional armor cracks open when an arsonist strikes and Jack, a well-liked janitor and her confidante, is killed. Stunned at his loss and baffled as to why someone would commit such violent acts against the school, Sister Holiday turns to chain-smoking and recalling memories of her former lover Nina to soothe herself.
But it’s not enough: She mistrusts the police, she doesn’t feel safe, and the Raymond Chandler novels she escaped into as a kid are looming large in her mind. “Sleuthing and stubbornness were my gifts from God,” she thinks, and she’s sure as hell going to use those gifts to solve the mystery on her own.
Scorched Grace revels in its unreliable narrator and bounty of plausible suspects, from shifty authority figures to mercurial students to enigmatic women of God. Douaihy, a poet and professor who shares Sister Holiday’s punk sensibility, immerses the reader in her hyperlocal New Orleans setting and the murky depths of Sister Holiday’s tormented soul. Her prose is frequently lyrical and often lacerating, her characters layered and intriguing.
It’s not surprising in the slightest that this series starter is the first book published by Gillian Flynn’s eponymous new imprint. Scorched Grace is both entertaining and devastating, dominated by a queer sleuth with a clever, curious mind and a fatalistic yet somehow still hopeful heart.