Novels set in a distant time and in an unfamiliar place always appeal to me, novels like David Fulmer’s first three New Orleans mysteries: Chasing the Devil’s Tail, Jass, and Rampart Street. Set at the beginning of the twentieth century and featuring the same Creole detective, each is centered in a neighborhood just north of the French Quarter that was known at the time as Storyville. And what was Storyville? The heart of the New Orleans tenderloin district, where pimps and madams and prostitutes worked nightly and where political bosses rapaciously ruled.
Valentin St. Cyr, Fulmer’s Sherlock Holmes, works for the man who considers Storyville his own personal fiefdom. Multiple murders, on Tom Anderson’s turf, are intolerable. In Chasing the Devil’s Tail, local prostitutes are being killed, each by a different method but every time by violent means. In Jass, the victims are all Negro musicians, music hall jazz players (spelled “jass” at the time). In Rampart Street, an investigation is precipitated by the unusual, back alley death of a respectable businessman. In each case, Tom Anderson, kingpin of Storyville and a real-life participant in New Orleans history, asks St. Cyr to solve the heinous crimes.
Other historical figures play parts in Fulmer’s novels, too. Some are well-known musicians, like Buddy Bolden, called King Bolden, the jass cornetist who made the music that made New Orleans famous. Or like pianist Jelly Roll Morton, whose name originated not from his fast-fingered, rolling piano scales but from a common street vulgarity. Or photographer E. J. Bellocq, who made his reputation taking life-like photos of the most unsavory of Storyville residents. Even the madams are real.
One of Fulmer’s greatest strengths is his ability to depict that polluted Storyville world of brothels and cribs, dark alleys and shadowy nightclubs. “By noon this Sunday, the city would sweat enough to raise the Mississippi and the streets of cobble and dirt would grow rank, as dead animals, human waste, and kitchen slops steamed in the sun, attended by clouds of green flies.” Louisiana politics is just as corrupt, a mirror of the dank scenery, “a turgid business, like the soil on which the lower half of the state was planted, thriving with life and fetid with decay. New Orleans, especially rich and wet, spawned a particular breed of parasitic life-form that found a haven in various local and state offices.”
More brash and brassy are Fulmer’s descriptions of New Orleans music. “The crowd fell deeper into the frenzy of motion and color and shouts and laughter, all to the rise and fall of King Bolden’s music. Valentin looked from one side of the room to the other, stunned by the power of the hands and lungs of this one-man Louisiana hurricane.” Elsewhere, Fulmer calls the atmosphere “crazy” whenever and wherever Buddy’s band is playing. Crowds gathered. “People rushed to listen to his wild music, to stomp their feet and yell, to flail about like they were in the jungle somewhere. . . . And it wasn’t just colored folk either; downtown Creoles and even some reckless young whites from proper Garden District families were coming round to see what all the fuss was about.”
Into this cacophony of noise and decay steps Creole detective Valentin St. Cyr, who has an uncanny knack for solving multiple murders. “. . . His successes as a detective had come less from his powers of deduction than from his ability to see behind masks and divine what drove people this way or that. It seemed as though he had a sixth sense that allowed him to untangle the sordid webs that miscreants wove.” St. Cyr’s talents enable him to delve deeply into the morass of decay that is Storyville.
The result? Three well-plotted mysteries with subtle clues I didn’t always catch. That’s because I was totally caught up, first in the story of the birth of New Orleans jazz, then in the musical form’s gradual acceptance by respectable society, and finally in the growing links between those two proximate worlds—Storyville and the French Quarter—worlds separated by class and color lines but united by their histories and their music. I especially like the way Fulmer traces the changes coming to those two linked communities. As time passes from one novel to the next, jass is turning into jazz and making its way into more upscale venues. Crowds are thinning in Storyville, and the music there is “only a faint echo of what was there before.” Many of the Storyville dance halls are closing. “Another year or two, and there’d be nothing left at all.”
I haven’t read the fourth Valentin St. Cyr mystery, Lost River, so I can’t say how much further Storyville will disintegrate or if it will eventually disappear. I can predict, however, that Lost River will be every bit as informative about New Orleans and every bit as irresistible as its predecessors, Chasing the Devil’s Tail, Jass, and Rampart Street. History, a studied sense of place, multi-faceted characters like Valentin St. Cyr, and serial mayhem—a perfect combination for any reader, I think. – Ann Ronald
Also available by David Fulmer: The Night Before; Lost River; Where Serpents Sleep; The Dying Crapshooter’s Blues; The Blue Door; The Fall.