By David Fulmer
Harcourt. 334 pp. $23
David Fulmer's second novel starring the Creole detective Valentin St. Cyr is set in New Orleans in 1908, when the new music called "jass" has electrified the brothels and bars of Storyville. The author says the term "jass" may have come from jaser, French for "chatter"; or perhaps from jasi, "party" in the Mandingo language of West Africa. How "jass" then became "jazz" is not explained, but Fulmer gives this glimpse of the state of the art at that moment, just after the legendary jazz pioneer Buddy Bolden suffered a breakdown and entered a mental institution:
"The jass the band was playing had only crossed over Canal Street within the year. Before then, it would have been heard only in low-down dives and dance halls out on Rampart Street. This was where Bolden and his gang had started it all, grabbing up gutbucket, ragtime, church music, cakewalks, and anything else they could find, mixing it up, and shoving it through the bells of their loud horns. It was something no one had ever heard before, raw and raucous, noisy and fast. First the Negroes went wild for it, then it was the Creoles, and then the American New Orleans got the fever."
As Fulmer tells it, respectable New Orleans viewed jass much as respectable America would view rock-and-roll 50 years later: They saw it as the devil's music, threatening to corrupt the young and bring on the decline of the West, but they were consoled by the thought that it was clearly a fad that would never last.
With Bolden gone, the major jazz figure in the novel is the young Jelly Roll Morton, who plays piano in a brothel and is friendly with St. Cyr. The detective works as the eyes and ears for Tom Anderson, the state senator and bar owner who is known as the King of Storyville and is considered the most powerful man in New Orleans. In "Chasing the Devil's Tail," which won a Shamus Award for a best first novel, St. Cyr solved a series of murders of sporting girls, or "soiled doves," in Storyville. This time, the victims are jass musicians.
At the outset, Morton warns St. Cyr that two musicians have been killed within a week, perhaps by the Ku Klux Klan or other white-supremacist groups who hate their music. At first the detective thinks the deaths are happenstance, brought on by drugs or fights over women. But after two more murders St. Cyr starts to investigate, only to find a police lieutenant and even his boss, Tom Anderson, trying to pressure him off the case. But St. Cyr is a stubborn fellow and pushes ahead.
Fulmer's mystery plot is adequate, but the strength of his novel is his vivid portrait of a great city at one of its most exciting moments. He gives us some of the history of the red-light district that was eventually named for an alderman, Sidney Story: "Since the battalion of prostitutes swarmed to New Orleans in the wake of Andrew Jackson's ragtag army of 1812, red lanterns had been hung in the windows of the shacks of wanton women as a sign of invitation to pleasures of the flesh." Fulmer cares about jazz and shows its birth in a corrupt, violent, bigoted world, but music is only one element in a broad canvas that includes politics, poverty, prejudice, crime, drugs, voodoo and the interaction between the city's rich and the women of color who became their mistresses.
At the center of the portrait is the melancholy St. Cyr, walking along such fabled streets as Magazine, Basin, Rampart, Burgundy and Royal, brooding about the unhappy past when his father was murdered and his mother disappeared. There is a vast sadness to his life. One night he goes to visit the graves of his brother and sister, who died young in the yellow fever epidemic of the 1880s: "Valentin felt the silence engulf him like a dark hand. As he stood there, the moon came out to wash the city of the dead in silver." His mistress, "the cafe-au-lait dove named Justine," has lived with St. Cyr for more than a year, but they quarrel, and she returns to her previous life, becoming the kept woman of a rich businessman, only to find that "She thought him a fool and a weakling, and she could not be the mistress of such a man for life. She could not bear his colored children. She could not live in a prison on Girod Street for his pleasure and her wealth. Let someone else accept that sentence."
In solving the case of the murdered musicians, St. Cyr makes so many enemies that he is last seen on a train out of town. Fulmer is a graceful, evocative writer, and if you love New Orleans and its music, his novel summons up sweet memories that have nothing to do with serial killers. I have no idea where Fulmer is going with his series, but it is worth noting that Louis Armstrong, age 7 or so, makes a cameo appearance as one of the waifs who run errands for St. Cyr. If Fulmer wants to move forward 10 or 15 years, a portrait of that particular artist as a young man, with his genius starting to blossom, might be the greatest of all New Orleans stories.