“Assassination at Bayou Sauvage,” by DJ Donaldson

DJ Donaldson

Reviewed by Daniel James Sundahl

DJ Donaldson is the author of a series of Andy Broussard / Kit Franklyn mysteries, most of which have been digitally published in the last half-decade or so. Donaldson’s mystery is readable, but if placed side-by-side with James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux novels, there are notable differences. Burke, for example, has created a realistic, complex and compelling protagonist in his series with human depth, raising the novels above the status of genre fiction. Donaldson’s novel falls short in comparison.

The Donaldson series concerns Andy Broussard, a medical examiner for the city of New Orleans. When the novel opens at a family picnic at Bayou Sauvage, Donaldson’s omniscient narrator writes, “Uncle Joe Broussard’s eyes suddenly bulged like a sideshow display. Then they exploded, plastering his glasses with pieces of iris, lens fibers, and vitreous jelly. An instant later, the side of his head erupted, throwing shattered bone, blood, and brain matter into the air in a sickening display.” It’s an all-too-close-for-comfort moment for Andy Brousssard, who “rolled his ample bulk off the seat of the picnic table so that he hit the ground with a thump” and on “hands and knees” scrambled around “the stacked cypress logs that supported the table’s too and seats.” There was a single gunshot coming from the swamp, and a lone gunman some 200 yards away. It’s an assassination which the book’s blurb refers to as “in living color.”

This assassination drives the novel’s movement forward as medical examiner Andy begins his perilous search for the assassin with the help of criminal psychologist Kit Franklyn. The oddity is that the killer seems to have committed suicide immediately after the murder; what’s left is for Andy and Kit to determine the motive after having discovered the assassin’s identity from the driver’s license on his body.

I’ve not read the other novels in this series, but many fans argue that this type of initial scene is a great way to start a novel, after which the bodies pile up quickly. This story is plot-driven but not complicated, and again by comparison to Robicheaux, the protagonist is not the usual hard-boiled tough-guy with the sharp tongue.

As readers we enjoy stories with high stakes, and Donaldson’s novel proves a bit too soft-pedaling. The distance between the omniscient narrator and his characters causes too much detachment and doesn’t allow the reader access to Broussard’s musings and longings.

Midway in the novel, more bodies pile up, and Broussard is called to the scene along with Detective Gatlin. The omniscient narrator notes that on a scale of 1-10 the scene is an 11:

Avoiding the footprints, [Andy] moved forward into the hall and immediately saw to his right, a body, face-up, sprawled on the carpet. The victim, was dressed in blue-striped pajamas soaked in blood from a crushing head wound so horrendous it took a moment for [Andy] to realize he was looking at a male. Next to the victim’s right hand was a large carving knife. About eye level on the wall directly up from the body’s feet there was a dent in the sheetrock. Taking into account the fact that the head wound was on the victim’s right side, it didn’t take a genius to figure out that the dent in the wall came from the victim’s  head bouncing off it after being struck by something that gave the killer a great deal of leverage. For want of a better possibility, Broussard believed it could have been a baseball bat.

In the above passage and throughout the novel, the narration reads like a report. The bland style prevents interesting characters from leaping off the page. Which leaves one wondering at the end, what James Lee Burke would make of this?

D.J. (Don) Donaldson is a retired medical school professor. Born and raised in Ohio, he obtained a Ph.D. in human anatomy at Tulane, then spent his entire academic career at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center in Memphis. In addition to being the author of several dozen scientific articles on wound healing, he has written seven forensic mysteries and five medical thrillers.

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