Journalist Ethan Brown delves straight into the heart of darkness with Shake the Devil Off. Billed by the publisher as a true crime story, it is that—and more. Brown tells the true tale of a grotesque murder in New Orleans, but he also manages to chronicle the tragic effects of one large hurricane and a brutal, ongoing war.

When he was a young teenager in California, Zackery Bowen was sweet, shy and gangly. That changed when he turned 18 and found a different life in New Orleans—one that included a wife and baby son. More confident and charismatic, Bowen took his responsibilities as a provider seriously and enlisted in the army in May 2000. First sent to Kosovo, where he served in a unit of military police, Bowen was then posted to Germany and finally, Iraq. Bowen left the army in 2004 under a general, though honorable, discharge—one that did not allow for adequate veterans’ benefits or support. He and his family returned to New Orleans, where his marriage—and his morale—disintegrated. He found new love with a quirky bartender named Addie Hall and, together with a tenacious group of fellow residents, they toughed it out through Hurricane Katrina and its terrible aftermath.

On October 17, 2006, Bowen jumped off the roof of a French Quarter hotel. In his pocket authorities found a note confessing to a murder and directing them to Hall’s apartment where they found her dismembered and partially cooked body. One spray-painted message on the wall read: “Please help me stop the pain.”

Though it is well-investigated, well-written and tautly paced, this book is not a pleasant read. It aptly relays the terrible suffering that serves as a reminder of what still exists: the ongoing devastation and homicidal violence in New Orleans and the chaos and destruction wreaked by the Iraq war. Beyond the story of a gruesome murder, Brown has given us a unique portrait of tenacious New Orleans, pre- and post-Katrina, and a reflective—though utterly chilling—account of how veterans of the Iraq war are suffering from mental degradation and lack of support.

Alison Hood writes from Marin County, California. 

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