The upbeat tempo of Jazz, Zydeco, R&B and Cajun music, punctuated by mournful wails of the Blues, echoes through the streets of the Big Easy. The sounds might be slightly muted Uptown and in the Garden District but blare at full volume in the French Quarter. And the music seeps into the pages of mysteries by James Lee Burke, Julie Smith, Tony Dunbar, Sandra Brown and Tami Hoag, among others.
Photos by: Liz Fermoyle
New Orleans boasts a storied literary history. William Faulkner wrote his first book in a French Quarter room that now serves as the Faulkner House bookstore. Truman Capote, Lillian Hellman and Elmore Leonard were born there. Anne Rice lives in the city’s Garden District today. Suzanne Brockman’s Into The Night and Stella Cameron’s romantic thrillers (French Quarter, The Best Revenge) are recent novels penned by Crescent City authors.
Going back much further, there was The Poets of ‘Les Cenelles’. In 1845, a volume of 85 poems was published by a group of 17 men, all of them New Orleans free men of color (Les Cenelles: Choix de Poesies Indigenes). All were cultured, educated men (a number of them educated in France) and members of a different Creole society than the white Creole society that produced such other early New Orleans authors as George Gayarre (1805-1895) and Grace King 1851-1932).
“The authors,” one scholar has written, “were not great poets, but they must have been cultivated men who took delight in writing and who hoped that some day one of their number would achieve in verse the fame that Dumas was then winning in novel and drama.” They did not, for the greater part, write about their native state but chose their themes from the French Romanticists and the classics.
But I digress; my focus is the mystery genre, and in that category the Big Easy serves as a favorite setting for authors from Leonard and James Lee Burke to Julie Smith, Tami Hoag, Tony Dunbar and Sandra Brown, among others. Robert Crais hails from just up the road in Baton Rouge but he arranged for Elvis Cole to visit N’Awlins and to meet his ladylove, Lucy Chenier, there. The city even has a Mystery Street in the area called Mid-City, a 20-minute bus ride from the French Quarter, as reported in the Journal, Vol. 12, No. 2, 1996.
And just as the strains of traditional jazz, Cajun and Zydeco music fill the streets of the French Quarter so does music permeate many of the mystery novels set in New Orleans. Proof? Check these titles: Burke’s Black Cherry Blues, Dixie City Jam, Cadillac Jukebox; Julie Smith’s The Axeman’s Jazz, Jazz Funeral, House of Blues, New Orleans Beat, plus her latest,Mean Woman Blues.
Ace Atkins burst on the scene in 1998 with his critically acclaimed novel, Crossroad Blues, followed byLeavin’ Trunk Blues in 2001. Both feature Nick Travers, an ex-New Orleans Saint football player turned Blues historian at Tulane University. Nick lives in a battered 1920’s warehouse and plays harmonica at JoJo’s Blues Bar in the French Quarter when he’s not investigating the strange disappearance of a college professor colleague or embroiled in some other music-related mystery. The missing professor was searching for previously unknown records by fabled bluesman Robert Johnson in Mississippi’s Delta country when he dropped out of sight.
Crossroad Blues offers more than just a murder mystery set in New Orleans and the Delta. It is almost literally a primer on blues history, especially as Robert Johnson is concerned. It could almost serve as the text for a Blues 101 course!
Music first stirred my interest in New Orleans. Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five and Hot Seven records from the 1920s captivated me as a teenager during World War II. Sidney Bechet, Kid Ory, Freddie Keppard, Johnny and Baby Dodds, Fate Marable, Jelly-Roll Morton, Earl Bostic and Lil Hardin Armstrong were in my pantheon of musical gods. Most of the Swing Era big bands paled by comparison.
(In an interesting sidelight on Lil Hardin Armstrong, the famed music critic John Hammond wrote this: “One of the most lovable people that ever existed in music was Hardin Armstrong, Louis’s wife and protector during those rough early days in Chicago. In the early days when the first talking Mickey Mouse cartoons came out, Minnie Mouse used to play the piano, and I was always certain her style was copied directly from Lil’s.”)
A voracious reader from early childhood, I devoured books on New Orleans. The tale of Storyville, with its brothels, wide-open lifestyle and, above all, its statues as the incubator of many jazz greats, fascinated me. I learned about the famous funeral bands and how they switched from dirges going to the cemetery to lively jazz on the way back. “When the Saints Come Marching In” became my favorite song, with “Frankie & Johnny” and “St. James Infirmary Blues” close behind.
It was books, the Dave Robicheaux mysteries especially, that rekindled my interest in New Orleans later in life. James Lee Burke painted verbal pictures so vivid you could almost smell the coffee and beignets at Café Du Mond, taste the famous Po’boy sandwiches and hear the sounds of the surrounding bayous – not to mention the faint wail of two-beat jazz or Cajun music that always seemed to lurk in the background.
I also discovered Julie Smith’s books. They really honed in on the French Quarter. The Axeman’s Jazz, second in the Skip Langdon series set in New Orleans, enthralled me. Music permeates this book about a serial killer with chutzpah. He tells the public that homes with jazz music will be spared in his murder spree, as he imitates the modus operandi of a legendary killer from the past. The later Langdon books continued to capture the ambiance of the Vieux Carre as few others have done. (Ms. Smith also turned me on to Ace Atkins’ Nick Travers books, for which I am most grateful.)
Several years ago my wife and I made our first pilgrimage to the Big Easy. We were entranced! We woke up every morning eager to roam the byways of the French Quarter. (We stayed in the Quarter House, on Rue Chartres just off Canal, and I recommend it highly.) We enjoyed the heady mix of fabulous food and music, the ever-hanging cast of colorful characters, and the seductive architecture with its signature lacy ironwork and discreetly veiled courtyards. On later trips we rode the St. Charles streetcar to the end of the line and back, explored Magazine Street, the Warehouse District and the eclectic New Orleans Art Museum.
Nor did I forget the mystery novels that lured me to the city. We sampled beignets at the Café Du Mond, perhaps at one of the same tables Dave Robicheaux and his partner Helen Soileau might have shared on a trip into the City. We listened to trad jazz from the house band and its Louis Armstrong sound-alike singer. We scarfed Po’boy sandwiches at some of the same spots Dave and Clete Purcell may have frequented in their NOPD days and muffulettas from the deservedly famous Central Grocery at 915 Decatur St.
I tried, with fair success, to locate some of the places mentioned in the novels of Julie Smith and Sandra Brown. Some could be pinpointed with reasonable certainty. It was easy to picture the six-foot-tall Skip Langdon, ex-debutant-turned-NOPD-detective stalking the New Orleans Prince of Darkness Earl Jacomine through some of the arcade-shaded streets of the Quarter as she did in Julie Smith’s The Kindness of Strangers and Crescent City Kill.
I didn’t locate Ms Smith’s former home on that trip but will certainly do so when we visit New Orleans again in the fall of 2003. Who could resist such a pilgrimage after hearing the author describe her former residence?
“I live in a three story townhouse in New Orleans built in 1830. It is so old — everything breaks and plaster peels and yes, there is a ghost. The cat hates it. But the ghost smells wonderful! It smells like jasmine. I have never interviewed these ghosts. But the Psychic Network filmed an infomercial in our home…. They had many psychics here at the time.”
Ms Smith now lives in “a funk loft on the boundary of the French Quarter and the Marigny.” The Faubourg Marigny, which locals simply call “The Marigny,” is the neighborhood immediately adjacent to the French Quarter across tree-shaded Esplanade Avenue. (We stayed in that area, at the Jean Lafitte House, 613 Esplanade Avenue, on our 2002 visit to New Orleans. Ms Smith has been kind enough to invite us to “come visit us for a drink” on our next visit.)
We took a boat trip out into the bayous in search of James Lee Burke country. I imagined that a man and young girl casting lures in a slough as we passed several hundred yards away might be Dave Robicheaux and his adopted daughter Alafair. We passed a bait shop with the smoke of barbeque hanging in the still air and boats for rent tethered to a nearby dock. It looked exactly like my minds-eye picture of Dave’s place.
Even out there in the swamp backwaters, the music followed us. It came from the fish camps and occasional cafes or juke joints perched on the bayou banks.
Back in the Vieux Carre, we visited every bookstore in the area. One was Crescent City Books, just kitty-corner from the Quarter House on Rue Chartres. It surprised me to learn that the store had only a couple of James Lee Burke books.
“We can’t keep ’em in stock,” the clerk told me. “They just jump off the shelves.” Other bookstore owners echoed his words.
My favorite bookstore is Kaboom Books, great name for a great store. Located at 915 Barracks St., it’s owned by John Dillmman and his wife Dee. John, a former construction worker who still keeps his hand in by fixing up stores and homes in the area, has been in the used book business for 20 years. He’s not only a very knowledgeable bookman but friendly and generous to a fault in sharing his know-how with regular and drop-in customers. I’ve spent several hours enjoying chats with him on our trips to New Orleans in the past three years.
On later trips we explored bookstores outside the Quarter, including a couple of nice ones on Magazine Street.
One I missed until I began researching this article is the Maple Street Bookstorehttp://www.maplestreetbookshop.com. Established in the mid-1960s, it’s the oldest independent bookstore in New Orleans. Located uptown on (surprise!) Maple Street, just a short walk from the Cherokee stop on the St. Charles streetcar line, the store occupies a charming old house. Overflowing bookshelves fill six rooms and a comfortable back room tempts visitors to sit, relax and read. The store often hosts signings and is staffed by genuine bibliophiles, as I learned when I called to ask for information about local mystery writers.
I spoke with Becky Batchelor and Carol Antosiak, both cordial and well-informed ladies. They mentioned several local writers, including Tony Dunbar and Christine (Chris) Wiltz, and offered to relay a message to Ms Wiltz. Sure enough, I got a friendly e-mail from Chris just two days later. She informed me that hardcover and paperback copies of her Neal Rafferty mysteries are no longer in print. (I did find many used copies listed, several dozen athttp://www.choosebooks.com and more at http://www.abebooks.com. They are offered in print-on-demand form from iUniverse. Titles in the Rafferty series include The Killing Circle, 1981; A Diamond Before You Die, 1987; The Emerald Lizard, 1991; and Glass House, 1994. Chris’ latest book, The Last Madam: A Life in the New Orleans Underworld, recounts the life of Norma Wallace, a famous operator of a New Orleans bordello from the 1920s to the 1960s. This one is available in both hardcover and paperback.
I haven’t acquired one of Chris’ books yet (on order from the Internet) but I did find, and read in one sitting, a copy of Tony Dunbar’sShelter From The Storm, one of the Tubby Dubonnet mystery series. Tubby is a slightly indolent, sometimes corner-cutting New Orleans lawyer who is essentially a decent guy. This very well-plotted novel pits him against a trio of bank robbers led by the murderous Willie LaRue, or “Rue” as he likes to be called. The action takes place during a deluge that floods the city, including the French Quarter, complicating matters considerably. As for music, this passage appears on page 2 of my paperback edition as Rue arrives at the New Orleans airport.
“LaRue carried a dull burgundy overnight bag in his left hand. That was the entire luggage he needed. Everything else was supposed to be in the van, unless Monk and his hillbilly partner from Mississippi had forgotten to bring it. New Orleans music seeped out of the intercom. At the moment it was Fats Domino [a New Orleans native] singing ‘I am the Sheik of Araby. Your love belongs to me.’ The chipper music did not add any bounce to Rue’s step. His was a rigid composure that wouldn’t crack.”
Music references pop up regularly in this and other books by Dunbar. I thoroughly enjoyed Shelter From The Storm and look forward to reading more in the Tubby Dubonnet series.
Another interesting source of books I discovered while researching this article is Britton Trice, owner of the Garden District Book Shop in New Orleans, famous as Ann Rice’s neighborhood bookstore. Britton actually wears two hats since he also heads B.E.Trice Publishing, a small press operation that started after Doubleday stopped publishing The Plantation Cookbook –the Junior League of New Orleans cookbook
“The bean counters at Doubleday thought a couple thousand copies wasn’t good enough and let it go out of print,” Trice reports gleefully. “I begged the Junior League until they let me pick up the rights, and I published it in 1992. Since then, I’ve reprinted it three times, 17,000 copies so far.”
Trice says one of his biggest thrills since he began publishing books instead of just selling them was his limited edition of Cormac McCarthy’s Cities of the Plain. “It was exciting. He’s known as a recluse because he doesn’t sign much, I flew out to El Paso to meet see him and have him sign the books and, true to his word, the meeting was short and sweet.” It paid dividends, however.Cities of the Plain was one of Trice’s most successful editions, selling 50 deluxe copies and 300 numbered copies. Most of his editions sell half those numbers. More recently he published Michael Connelly’s Lost Light and Robert Crais’ The Last Detective in slipcased signed limited editions.
We plan to report more on Trice’s bookstore-cum-publishing operation as part of a series on small press publishers, that begins in this issue. We planned to meet at BookExpo-America as this was written and I hope to visit his New Orleans store this fall.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m in need of some R&R after this long session at the keyboard. I believe I’ll put on a CD of blues and Dixieland tunes, pour a cup of coffee (Louisiana-style chicory blend, of course) and settle down with a good book. Let’s see, will it be Ace Atkins’ Crossroad Blues, Tony Dunbar’s City of Beads, or Julie Smith’s second Talba Wallis mystery, Louisiana Hotshot. Tough choices!