“The North Face of the Heart” by Dolores Redondo, translated by Michael Meigs (Amazon Crossing, 475 pages, $24.95)
The human heart has four distinct chambers. Not so “The North Face of the Heart.” Dolores Redondo’s atmospheric new thriller is multifaceted and layered, driving a compelling search for a serial killer into the heart of a hurricane.
Fans of Redondo, one of Spain’s bestselling writers, are familiar with the brilliant detective Amaia Salazar. Here, the author offers a prequel to her Baztan trilogy in a standalone origin story: Salazar is only 25 and an assistant inspector with a provincial Spanish police force who’s been invited to attend a series of law enforcement lectures in the United States.
During one of those lectures, Salazar learns about a serial killer, aka the Composer, targeting families who are victims of natural disasters. Already on the FBI’s radar for a past case she solved in Spain, Salazar is plucked from among the students on the strength of her unorthodox psychological critique of the current presentation — a trait that will become a future trademark — to assist in the investigation.
When that investigation takes the team to New Orleans on the eve of Hurricane Katrina, things unravel with the thrust of gale force winds, alternately covering and revealing facts and fabrications as Salazar navigates a city under siege, the obtuse hierarchy of the FBI, experienced local police officers and a Cajun “healer.”
Simultaneously out of her physical element and completely competent in building the psychological profile of a killer, in this early story we see the young inspector take on departmental storms and tantrums with Redondo providing a healthy dose of Salazar’s traumatic backstory.
A large part of the novel’s magic is in the author’s depictions of 2005 New Orleans just before the hurricane, and the killer, are poised to strike. Betting that the Composer — so named because a witness to a prior murder saw him “waving his arms like someone directing an orchestra” — will strike in the aftermath of what is projected to be one of the nation’s most violent natural disasters is just one hedge the elite team is taking. And, it is Salazar on whom much of the wager is laid because it is she who is able to make connections others can’t: The theatrical arm movements following a series of murders could mirror a liturgical service, and it is the inspector who offers the most cogent answer for the similarity in the chosen victims and the orientation of the bodies after death.
That much of her seeming clairvoyance comes at the price of someone who’s lived through horrific trauma does not go unnoticed by the team leader, FBI agent Aloisius Dupree. It is Dupree who recognizes that Salazar’s intuition is inspired by the evils of her past, and the interplay between the two officers is brilliantly crafted by Redondo in a foreshadow of the detective’s drive toward True North.
For the uninitiated, “The North Face of the Heart” offers a deep dive into the Redondo series. For fans, the exhumation of past ghosts will even more fully flesh out the textured detective.