Do You Know What it Means to Miss New Orleans?*

If you’ve ever been to New Orleans then you know that it’s a distinctive place. It’s a mixture of old Southern wealth, new money and wrenching poverty. It’s also one of the most fascinating mixtures of cultures, ethnic groups and language backgrounds I’ve ever experienced. And music? The city moves to music – really. New Orleans also has some of the most delicious food there is and you can find it even in little hole-in-the-wall restaurants. It’s got an interesting history too. But what makes New Orleans so special (at least to me) is that it is a very “alive” city. There is a rich enjoyment of life there that makes it truly vibrant. It’s also a really intriguing setting for crime fiction. Not only is there as I said a mix of different socioeconomic and other backgrounds but New Orleans has had more than its share of drugs gangs, racial tension, corruption and other problems. It’s not a perfect place. But it is unique.

There are several series that are set in New Orleans. Julie Smith’s Skip Langdon series is just one of them. Langdon is a former member of New Orleans’ upper crust who turned “rebel” and became a cop. In New Orleans Mourning for instance (the first Skip Langdon mystery), she investigates the murder of wealthy magnate Chauncy St. Amant who is shot during Mardi Gras. Langdon is a rookie who’s assigned to this case because it’s assumed that she’s in with the social elite. The truth is that Langdon has never felt like one of the “beautiful people” although she went to the “right schools” and her parents have spent their lives climbing the social ladder. Still, she does have contacts in that world and she uses them to solve this murder. Like several of the novels in this series this one features a lot of dark family secrets..

James Sallis’ Lew Griffin is a former private investigator turned writer and part-time professor. In The Long-Legged Fly we learn of Griffin’s career as a full-time private investigator and some of the wrenching cases he took. By the time Moth, the second Lew Griffin novel, takes place, Griffin has retired from full-time detection and has taken up an academic career. But the pull of a former friendship draws him back into the business. The Lew Griffin novels often feature a search for missing children and Griffin’s determination to find them before anything happens to them. They also show a much seedier side of New Orleans than we see in Smith’s novels. Sallis’ novels are what you might call a literary look at the life of a New Orleans PI who began his career during the 1960’s when being a black PI was even more dangerous than it is now. Readers who prefer more or less chronological timelines should be aware that this series goes back and forth between the past and the present as we follow Griffin’s career. But each section of each novel is clearly set off so it’s not difficult to know when a part of the story is taking place. And this series shows quite a lot of New Orleans that the tourists don’t get to see.

Crime fiction fans will already know that a lot of James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux novels are set in and near New Orleans. Robicheaux is a former New Orleans cop who ended up working for the New Iberia, Louisiana police. But he still has lots of frieds and contacts in New Orleans. For instance The Tin Roof Blowdown is in part the story of one of those friends. In that novel, one thread of the plot is Robicheaux’s search for his former friend Jude Le Blanc, who became a Roman Catholic priest. The novel takes place in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and thousands of people are stranded. Le Blanc disappears and is presumably shot while trying to save some of his parishoners who’ve gathered in the very top part of his church. When the boat he’d managed to obtain is later used by looters Robicheaux knows there’s some connection to Le Blanc’s fate. In this novel and in many others in this series we see all of cultural and ethnic sides of New Orleans. We also see some of the not-very nice sides of the city. But even when he’s describing New Orleans at its worst Burke captures how very much alive the city really is.

Barbara Hambly has written a very interesting New-Orleans based historical mystery series featuring Dr. Benjamin January, who left New Orleans to study medicine in Paris. In A Free Man of Color, the first of the series, January returns to 1830’s New Orleans after the death of his beloved wife Ayasha. Her loss has left him heartbroken and unable to stay in Paris. Since he is barred because of his race from a medical career, January makes a living playing piano. That’s how he gets access to all sorts of New Orleans events from private parties to larger events, including the famous Mardi Gras Carnival. These stories offer a look at the city through the eyes of someone who’s in some ways an outsider, especially in the early novels in this series. But January is from New Orleans and he knows the New Orleans of the 1830’s intimately. Through January’s eyes Hambly effectively depicts all of the layers of ante-bellum New Orleans.

Even some authors whose novels aren’t primarily set in New Orleans sometimes bring their characters there. For instance Nevada Barr’s Burn, featuring her National Park Service Ranger Anna Pigeon, takes place mostly in New Orleans. In that novel Pigeon decides to visit her friend Geneva, who’s a singer at the New Orleans Jazz National Historic Park. It’s not long before Pigeon suspects that Geneva’s tenant Jordan may have connections to New Orleans’ child trafficking trade. So she decides to track him to find out what and who he really is. This story is related to the simultaneous story of Seattle chemist Clare Sullivan, who is accused of setting the fire that kills her husband and two children. She is convinced though that her children are alive and have been taken to New Orleans. Sullivan uses all of the skills at her disposal to try to find her children.

New Orleans is an exciting, fun, exotic, mysterious place. As author Julie Smith says, it’s full of secrets. It’s got some of the finest food there is and world class music (I’m telling you, New Orleans breathes music). With so much vibrancy, so much confluence of different groups and backgrounds and so much rich history, it’s little wonder that New Orleans is the setting for some compelling crime fiction. This post has only mentioned a few examples; which are your favourites?

ps. The ‘photo shows a voodoo luck treasure I got in the French Quarter of New Orleans. I wandered one day to the part of the French Quarter that the tourists don’t usually visit and was very glad I did. And the CD? There is nothing like a ‘Trane ride. 🙂

NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Eddie DeLange and Louis Alter.


Filed under Barbara Hambly, James Lee Burke, James Sallis, Julie Smith, Nevada Barr

24 responses to “Do You Know What it Means to Miss New Orleans?*

  1. Margot, I agree with you about New Orleans – and I’d second what you said about the food; it is virtually impossible to get a bad meal there (and the food is a prime topic of conversation all over town). There’s another series set in New Orleans – “cozies” by Laura Childs, which focus on scrapbooking along with the mysteries. The central character is Carmela Bertrand, owner of a scrapbooking shop in the French Quarter, who becomes involved in investigating murders.

    • Les – Right you are about the food – yuuuuum. It is probably a very good thing for my diet that I don’t live there… Thanks also for the suggestion of the Laura Child series. I’ve heard of it but am not familiar enough with it to mention it intelligently so I’m glad you dod.

  2. A very interesting post. Several of the series you mention are on my list (and in my stacks) to be read. The only one I have tried is James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux series and that was too gritty for me (at the time… a long time ago I read the first three…).

    Maybe the reason I resist series set in the South is because I was raised there. I have visited New Orleans twice (many years ago) and loved it. It is truly unique.

    My husband recommends: Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead By Sara Gran. Only one book so far.

    • Tracy – Thank you (and your husband) for the kind words and for the recommendation of the DeWitt. I admit I haven’t tried that one yet but I do know I’ve heard some really good things about it.
      I agree with you that the Dave Robicheaux series is gritty – sometimes very gritty. So it may not be for everyone. But the series is so distinctively Louisiana and very New Orleans in many of the stories…
      It’s interesting you’d mention resisting series and novels set where you were raised. I’m going to have to think about that one. I don’t think I consciously do that, but perhaps I do. Thanks for the “food for thought.”

  3. There is an excellent series about New Orleans by Elaine Viets – centred on journalist (and amateur crime solver) Francesca Vierling and quite often about the “rehabbers” (the books were written pre-Katrina). Highly recommended. Funny, and very acute observations on the changing journalism industry and its ethics.

    • Maxine – Thanks very much for this suggestion. I was hoping this series would get a mention because although I’ve dabbled in it, I don’t know it well enough to comment on it intelligently. I’m glad you did.

  4. I’ve noticed that New Orleans is a popular setting for crime fiction. It’s interested me that Charleston and Savannah (just as ancient and quirky) aren’t as much. I think the difference is that New Orleans has that exotic quality you mentioned…and unique cultures coming together. Great overview, Margot!

    • Elizabeth – Thank you 🙂 – And that’s an interesting point you make about both Charleston and Savannah. They don’t get as much “press” in crime fiction as New Orleans does and as you say, they too have history, some mystery, and quirks. I really think it is just something about the way that different cultures and language groups have come together there. It really is exotic. But you’ve made me curious; I need to think about the Savannah- and Charleston-based crime novels there are out there.

  5. I enjoyed Sara Gran’s ‘City of the Dead’ set in Orleans. It was a different take on the city than James Lee Burke’s but equally enjoyable.

  6. kathy d.

    Wow! A plethora of New Orleans books. I’ve read Julie Smith’s series, enjoyed it. I will try Barbara Hambly’s and James Lee Burke’s as well as Nevada Barr’s Burn. I read Sara Gran’s book and wasn’t all that impressed. I thought it quite intense, over the top even, with much exaggerated.
    What a city! I’ve only heard good things about the music and food. I bought a cd of wonderful music of all kinds after Katrina; it was put out to raise money for Katrina survivors.
    And who can forget Dennis Quaid and Ellen Barkin in The Big Easy?

    • Kathy – Oh, yes! The Big Easy! Thanks for the reminder. I must admit to not being a very well-informed film buff but yes, that one is just full of atmosphere isn’t it? When it comes to music, New Orleans really is amazing. You can walk around and just hear it – literally – on the streets. And very very good music too. And the food? There’s nothing like it.
      Be prepared if you read Nevada Barr’s Burned: it is not an easy book to read. Some parts are disturbing. But I think it’s powerful. And of course I’ve always liked James Lee Burke.

  7. It’s a wonderful setting for a book. I haven’t read a lot of mysteries set there but I have read a few other books and the setting always adds an element to the story.

    • Clarissa – I agree completely. New Orleans is a terrific setting for a novel. I think it’s such an atmospheric place with so much life, energy, mystery and more. For a crime novel context, what’s not to like?

  8. Great post, Ms. Kinberg! The only fictional work set in New Orleans that I can think of is INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE by Anne Rice. I read this book less than two years ago. And, of course, Louis Armstrong, whose “What A Wonderful World” never fails to touch a chord no matter how many times I listen to it, was from New Orleans, a jazzed up city. New Orleans, and the whole of Louisiana, has a colourful history and I’m glad it has been written about widely, both in fiction and non-fiction, especially with regard to the frontier and the civil war.

    • Prashant – You are so right! Louis Armstrong was such a genius wasn’t he? And he will indeed be forever associated with New Orleans. Interesting you thought of Interview With the Vampire too. You know, that never even occurred to me when I was preparing this post. Thanks not only for that perspective but for your kind words, too.

  9. kathy d.

    Thanks for bringing up the late, great Louis Armstrong, not to mention the history of New Orleans and its role is not only its colossal role in developing jazz, but so much more music.
    I’ve read all of Nevada Barr’s book but stayed away from Burn because of the theme. Not sure if I’ll read it or not.

    • Kathy – No doubt about it, Kathy, New Orleans has been absolutely essential in the history of music. I actually had the pleasure of hearing the Preservation Jazz Band play while I was in New Orleans – what an experience!
      And about Burn? I can see why you’ve been cautious about it. It’s not easy to read…

  10. The only one I’ve read so far is David Fulmer’s historical mystery series featuring Valentin St. Cyr which is excellent. I really should read more of the ones you’ve mentioned.

  11. kathy d.

    Lucky you! Hearing the Preservation Jazz Band must have been a real treat.
    I bought a cd of a special benefit that Alvin Toussaint, another great, organized to raise money for Katrina’s victims; every singer has a totally different style. I suppose in honor of New Orleans that I should listen to it today. (I also gave that cd to two friends who’d been there and love the jazz.)
    I may skip Burn.
    On another note, switching to a very different part of the South, I am reading A Killing in the Hills, as it was strongly recommended by some terrific websites. It’s an excellent book and it gives such descriptions of the location and the crises faced by its inhabitants due to the economic decline.

    • Kathy – Oh, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band is wonderful. And the building itself is small so the concerts are really quite intimate. One really gets quite up close and personal. If you ever get the chance to hear them, I recommend it.
      I’ve heard of that Touissant CD but haven’t yet listened to it. You’ve reminded me that I should do that, so thanks. And thanks too for the recommendation of A Killing in the Hills. All the reviews I’ve read about it are at least positive if not strong recommendations and that doesn’t usually happen.

  12. kathy d.

    Here’s the link for the cd I mentioned above:
    The Preservation Hall Jazz Band has a number in it.

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