Take a Walk in a Wild City: Noir and New Orleans
By Michael Allen ZellMarch 18, 2015
NEW ORLEANS has settled into its groove. The city is approaching the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and the massive flooding from systemic levee failures triggered by the storm. Upheaval has made way for permanent realities, including one essential revelation: New Orleans is more so an unyielding crime city with a drinking problem than a quaint drinking city with a crime problem.
Murders are at their lowest level in decades, yes, but by almost every other measure, street crime is on the rise. There have been exponential increases even over the past year, while perps and many victims are getting younger. The city’s leaders have been unable to effectively curtail what has most New Orleanians as fearful as they’ve been in decades. In these ways, as in so many others, the Crescent City remains simultaneously the most and the least North American city. What is the place of and necessity for crime fiction in one of the most dangerous cities in the world? When the daily news is filled with grief and mayhem, often with elements that would seem improbable in fiction, what is the point of cobbling together a basketful of news stories for the plot of a novel? Why should readers flock to what they already know? In her essay “What Are Masterpieces and Why Are There So Few Of Them?” Gertrude Stein asserts, in her inimitable way,
The tradition has always been that you may more or less describe the things that happen you imagine them of course but you more or less describe the things that happen but nowadays everybody all day long knows what is happening and so what is happening is not really interesting.
On the one hand, crime is so pervasive and affects every level of society such that any New Orleans novel with range is a de facto noir book or at least contains stock characters of the genre. Examples of this include the B-girls of John Kennedy Toole’s classic Confederacy of Dunces, the criminals in Louis Maistros’s magical realist The Sound of Building Coffins, and the arsonist murderer of Baron Ludwig von Reizenstein’s mid-19th-century urban gothic The Mysteries of New Orleans. The excellent Yellow Jack by Josh Russell and the Liquor series by Poppy Z. Brite (now Billy Martin) also contain more than a few wrongdoers.
On the other hand, today more than ever before, “everybody all day long knows what is happening.” This leads to an increased interest in well-researched nonfiction about New Orleans: Chris Wiltz’s (also known for her Neal Rafferty mysteries) The Last Madam, Matthew Randazzo and Frenchy Brouillette’s Mr. New Orleans, and Orissa Arend’s Showdown in Desire come to mind in the realm of true crime. But what does it mean for the city’s contemporary crime fiction?
I’m presently reading Two Guns from Harlem: The Detective Fiction of Chester Himes by New Orleanian Robert Skinner, who is also the author of the recommended and almost completely unknown Wesley Farrell noir series set in the 1930s. It makes sense that Skinner’s a local, considering that the Amistad Research Center (ARC) at Tulane University is the home of Himes’s papers. Around a year ago, I read Chester Himes for the first time, thanks to the ARC. The unexpected thrill of charging through Himes’s ultra-vivid and galvanizing Harlem Detective series remains with me. Few writers so unflinchingly reveal the dignity and indignity of a character, or push absurdity to the limit. Few pry into the head of a person and show the ferocity of human nature. While working through the nine books of the series, I was struck that the so-called “genre hack” could flat outthink and outwrite most contemporary authors of “literary fiction.” Himes’s Harlem Cycle helps us understand a place and people. Ourselves, too, frankly. The books have their own guiding truths. They are unique and meritorious. Their verticality is a separate beast from horizontal daily life.
Stein, who herself wrote one detective novel, Blood On The Dining-Room Floor, continues to the heart of it here:
In real life people are interested in the crime more than they are in detection, it is the crime that is the thing the shock the thrill the horror but in the story it is the detection that holds the interest and that is natural enough because the necessity as far as action is concerned is the dead man, it is another function that has very little to do with human nature that makes the detection interesting.
The human mind, then, is where fiction has a place to stake its claim, since it can rarely compete with the vagaries of human nature. Thus a noir book (using “noir” and “crime fiction” interchangeably), like any other art form worth its salt, should offer just enough reality for the reader to find connection, yet have its own truth and internal logic — not necessarily those of the outside world. This is the lesson learned from reading Chester Himes, which also serves to answer the guiding questions of this essay. The place and necessity for crime fiction in a dangerous city is not to exploit, but to reveal the seams of a city and the psyches of its people, as Himes did with Harlem. We should look at a work of crime fiction as a document of a place and people. If noir is so real you can feel it and so well written you can taste it, then context and perspective are provided. As a result, a place and its people are better understood — and the reader is enriched in the process.
The following authors should be considered the leading lights of New Orleans noir. Each has a different approach. Each has different qualities. All are recommended reads and have their own unique ways of showing us context and perspective.
Award winner James Lee Burke is in a league of his own. Cajun protagonist Dave Robicheaux staggers through the haunted landscape connecting rural New Iberia to urban New Orleans. Burke writes with a beauty, depth, and sheer scope of the soul foreign to most authors of any stripe. Though the Robicheaux books may have run their eventual course in recent years, none of them is anything less than a high-water mark in chronicling a state too often marked by venality, brutality, and family trees with both rotten roots and withered branches.
James Sallis, most recently heralded for the film adaptation of his book Drive, is in his own company as well. His serial hero, black detective Lew Griffin, takes his sweet time wandering through his own mind. Occasionally, he also solves crimes in the Lower Garden District and locates missing people throughout the region. Sallis’s style over the seven titles is a literary, reflective sort, well placed in the company of international authors like Jose Saramago and Cees Nooteboom.
David Fulmer, another award winner, has staked his claim in an irresistible era. Welcome to Storyville, the infamous red light district, counterpart to the early jazz days. Creole detective Valentin St. Cyr, in the employ of Storyville “mayor” Tom Anderson, investigates shady types, navigates downtown streets, and keeps a special place in his heart for one particular soiled dove. These are well researched books, but calling them historical fiction may undermine the consummate verve of their stride. When asked about the place of crime fiction in New Orleans, Fulmer responded:
New Orleans has a surplus of crime. But so do a lot of cities. What makes this one so unique are all the currents that swirl around it, reaching back hundreds of years into the past. Racial dynamics, corruption, and vice all brewing. Now add music and food and tribal rituals. And above it floats intimations of respectability. Where else are you going to find these elements in a better mix?
Julie Smith and Bill Loehfelm both offer the unique perspective of a female NOPD protagonist. Loehfelm’s Maureen Coughlin is a recent East Coast transplant. His newest, and third in the series, Doing the Devil’s Work, moved from simply mirroring and reordering reality to something more original. In this way he joins Edgar Award winner Julie Smith as a writer of detective fiction who does more than “describe the things that happen.” Smith’s Skip Langdon series, easily her best, was written a few decades ago, back when New Orleans was the murder capital of the country, and features an unwilling Uptown debutante more at home on the grittier side of Canal Street. Smith also edited the captivating New Orleans installment of Akashic’s noir series.
Lambda Award winners Greg Herren and Jean Redmann are writers who contextualize the New Orleans gay and lesbian communities, respectively, while perfectly illustrating the keen sense of place that draws readers to crime fiction. Herren does so while focusing on the Irish Channel, Garden District, and even specific streets. Redmann’s The Intersection of Law and Desire is one of the only books of New Orleans fiction that looks at the isolated Desire Projects, which are no longer standing.
The unfortunate lack of New Orleans crime writers of color is made obvious by omission. Perhaps this will eventually be remedied, though it is no less the case for crime fiction nationally. We can only hope that internationally known New Orleans local Yuri Herrera, who Francisco Goldman praised as “Mexico’s greatest novelist,” writes about the Crescent City one day.
This list should also include part-time New Orleanian Laura Lippman, winner of one of the first annual Pinckley Prizes — recently established to honor the late Diana Pinckley, whose “Get A Clue!” column covered over twenty years of crime fiction for The Times-Picayune.
Continuing the roster of recommended authors is merely a matter of space, but permit me to include the stray leaves of John D. MacDonald’s Murder for the Bride, a “Red Scare” book set in New Orleans, and Barry Gifford’s occasional city scenes in his Sailor and Lula series. I’ll leave the final word to the astute Susan Larson, host of the weekly radio show The Reading Life, and the most essential figure in the New Orleans book world for over 25 years:
Noir and New Orleans are a good match. It's a way to engage with the city's history and uniqueness, while at the same time striking a chord common with all urban dwellers. We read these novels for the voices of the narrators, the attachment we grow to feel toward their locales, and that little frisson of fear that no other kind of fiction quite delivers. It is both a dependable and surprising pleasure.
Michael Allen Zell is a novelist, playwright, and essayist. Errata, his first book, was named a 2012 Top 10 Book of the Year by The Times-Picayune. His newest, Run Baby Run, is due out this fall from Lavender Ink. See more at michaelallenzell.com.
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