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.