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Excellent historical mystery set in Storyville
on April 3, 2009
I very much enjoyed "Chasing The Devil's Tail," by David Fulmer. This is the first book in a series featuring Creole detective Valentin St Cyr, set in New Orleans in the early 1900's, and more particularly, set in Storyville.
Storyville was the "special district" set aside in New Orleans for legalized prostitution in 1897 under an ordinance introduced by Alderman Story, whose name became attached to the district, probably to his discomfort. It was closed down by the U.S. Navy in 1917 as being detrimental to the morals of young sailors. It remains legendary, its passing lamented in song (e.g. "Hop Scop Blues", by Chris Norris with the Golden Eagle Jazz Band; "Storyville Blues", by Big Bill Bissonnette's Easy Riders Jazz Band), and it is credited with being the incubator of New Orleans jazz. Storyville is one of the world's most famous red light districts, rivalled in the U.S. mainly by the single establishment of the Everleigh sisters, in Chicago. (It has been reported that a European crown prince was interviewed about his planned trip to the U.S. He was asked who he most wanted to meet in America. His answer was, "The Everleigh sisters!")
In this rich atmosphere, the plot centers around murders in several of the bordellos, which leads Tom Anderson, political power holder in Storyville, to assign his troubleshooter, St. Cyr, formerly of NOPD, to put a stop to this threat to business. Mr. Fulmer does a good job of evoking the time and place. He has clearly spent time studying Al Rose's "Storyville," probably the definitive work on the subject. (Interestingly, when Rose tried to learn who had owned the land on which the fancy houses were situated, he found that the relevant pages had been cut out of the parish records.)
One of the devices Fulmer uses is to lace the story with historical figures. Tom Anderson was a state legislator, local power broker, and the "King of Storyville." He ran a saloon in Storyville, was the lover of one of the high class madams, and probably owner of her establishment. Lulu White, and some of the other madams make appearances, as does Edward Bellocq, the famous photographer of the girls, Buddy Bolden and Ferdinand Le Menthe (who later took the name "Jelly Roll Morton"). You can almost hear Mamie Desdoumes playing "Mamie's Blues," and see the young Ferd Le Menthe working in the house as a can rusher in order to learn to play the piece.
In the story, Bolden, the 1890's-1900's trumpet player who may or not have been one of the progenitors of jazz (and mythologized in "Jelly's Last Jam," a miserable Broadway production, second worst of all those I have seen), is cast as a childhood friend of St Cyr's, and a prime suspect. The story is well-plotted, the characters are interesting, and the setting is fascinating for anyone with an interest in New Orleans, Storyville and all of the issues it posed, or the beginnings of jazz. Highly recommended.