Archive for the ‘New Orleans’ Category

It is 1919 New Orleans and a serial killer, nicknamed the Axeman because of his Axemanmodus operandi,  is on the loose. Pressure is mounting for his/her capture. There are three separate investigations taking place. The first is run by the police, who tapped Detective Lieutenant Michael Talbot, a disliked, expendable police officer to lead the investigation. The second is orchestrated by Ida Davis. Davis, a Negro who can pass for white, is bored being a secretary at Pinkerton’s National Detective Agency so she begins to put bits of information together to catch a killer. The third is being conducted by Luca D’Andrea, formerly Talbot’s police mentor until Talbot testified against him because of his mafia connections. Just released after serving five years at Angola prison, Luca is investigating the murders at the behest of mafia boss Carlo Matranga, in return (theoretically) for Luca’s return passage home to his native Italy. It seems that the serial killer has been targeting Italians which is bad for Carlo’s protection business.

Based on a real unsolved case from the era (the ‘Axeman’ killed six people from 1918 through 1919), Ray Celestin’s debut novel, The Axeman,  is a ‘literary’ mystery. That’s not to say that there’s no action in the book. There’s quite a bit but character development and setting are equally as important as plot and action.

Readers will be immersed in early 20th century New Orleans. While I always thought that New Orleans, a melting pot of ethnicity and race, was a racially progressive city and in many ways it was, segregation and bigotry still abounded. The fact that Talbot is married to a Black woman (they had to go out of state in order to get married) is shoved in his face when necessary. The rivers overflowed their banks and the levees, drowning the city on occasion. Prohibition was soon to begin, which was not well accepted in a city that loves its drink. There were the rich and the poor, with not much in between. There was still a widespread belief in witchcraft and the bayou was a dangerous and mysterious place where people disappear, either on purpose or by accident.

Ida Davis’ best friend and confidant is fledgling musician Louis Armstrong and while I typically LouisArmstrongdon’t like when real famous people are brought into fiction, in this particular instance it worked quite well. It allowed Celestin to describe the music of the times and also work that into the Axeman murders. Readers will get an interesting history lesson, such as how Storyville got its name and why it was supposedly dismantled.

RedStormThe Axeman brings to mind two very disparate books. The first is The Red Storm: A Mystery by Grant Bywaters that takes place in New Orleans in the late 1930s. Although the writing is more akin to pulp mystery fiction of that decade, the feeling of the book and its setting is very similar and New Orleanian’s attitudes towards Blacks had changed little in the two decades separating the stories. AJuneOfOrdinaryMurdersThe other book is A June of Ordinary Murders by Conor Brady. Although this book takes place in Ireland, it is the literary style and the pressure to solve both cases that made me think of it.

I rarely say this but I love the cover of The Axeman. The New Orleans architecture is so distinctive and it comes through on the book cover.

In A Conversation With the Author at the end of the book, Celestin says he is working on a sequel. I, for one, am anxiously awaiting its release. In the meantime pick up The Axeman or A June of Ordinary Murders.

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It is 1938 New Orleans.  William Fletcher, prize fighter turn private investigator,RedStorm is mulling over his coffee at the local dive. Business is a bit slow since Negro investigators can only take on Negro clients. In walks Bill Storm, a thug Fletcher worked with a bit back in New York fifteen years earlier. He asks Fletcher to find his daughter, Zella, who he has not seen in as many years. Knowing the dangers of taking on a white client, Fletcher only agrees to poke around. Using his numerous contacts in the lower echelon of New Orleans society, it takes Fletcher less than an afternoon to find Zella. However, when Storm’s dead body is discovered in a park the next day, it is Zella, fearing for her life, who offers Fletcher a job, as her bodyguard. Storm’s murder is only the tip of a deadly iceberg engulfing two rival crime syndicates.

The Red Storm a debut novel by Grant Bywaters, who himself is a licensed private investigator, introduces two engaging characters in Fletcher and detective sergeant Brawley, Fletcher’s police buddy. The ancillary characters are engaging as well.

The writing is a bit stilted, alternating between 1930s pulp mystery vernacular (‘gats’ and ‘dames’) and current lingo.  The author also felt compelled to describe every building that Fletcher entered. Totally unnecessary. The plot and action move along nicely, while sometimes a bit far-fetched. Fans of gritty New Orleans mysteries, such as Sara Gran’s Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead especially, might enjoy the historical aspect of this mystery. In general, a pleasant read and a reasonable first effort for the general mystery lover.

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If you recall, last Friday was a bitter cold day, so of course that’s the day Susan and I planned to spend walking around Manhattan, The day started badly with my car overheating (resulting in me car shopping this week…ugh!), thus delaying our entry into NYC (and possibly cancelling our trip to Warwick). But Susan had the brilliant idea of driving into Forest Hills and catching a subway. Amazingly, it worked.

We had 1:30 PM reservations at the Society of Illustrators dining room. I heard about it through the Children Services Division of the Nassau County Library Association who sponsored a trip there on a day I couldn’t go. We RobertMcGinnismade it with two minutes to spare. Yikes. If you haven’t been there, it is worth the trip for the atmosphere and the food. We heartily recommend the soup of the day, the Lemon Thyme Roasted Chicken and the pasta of the day. The wine was delicious and the Chocolate Cake with Raspberry Coulis was scrumptious and the slice was huge. We couldn’t finish it no matter how hard we tried. It was lovely way to relax after rushing to get there on time.

There are illustrations all over the place…obviously. However the pulp art of the scantily clad young woman (similar to the one shown here) by Robert McGinnis that was placed over the urinal in the men’s room should probably be relocated…for various reasons. Being the pulp art fan that I am, I stared at it for quite a while.

We had plenty of time to kill so we wandered. I won’t bore you with the details.

DrJOhnOur final stop was LouisArmstrongTown Hall where Dr. John was providing his rendition of Louis Armstrong. I have his CD of Duke Ellington material and Johnny Mercer material so I sort of knew what to expect. However, the band he had, blew us away. There was a trombone, trumpets, alto sax, tenor sax, a keyboard (besides Dr. John himself), DrJohn2drums, bass guitar. He had a guest trumpeter and a singer. There were slow songs and faster songs, all styled in Dr. John’s unique way. But it was the last two songs that truly made us think of New Orleans. It began with a slow version of When the Saints Go Marching In and ended in a rousing New Orleans style jam making us wish we were in New Orleans. I’d see this concert again, it was that good. And I just ordered the CD, Ske-Dat-De-Dat: The Spirit of Satch.

SkeOf course, that fact that “He came to me in this dream and said, ‘Do my stuff — your way,’” said the 73-year-old pianist just adds to the already considerable Dr. John mystique.

In case you’re wondering, we did make it up to Warwick. I won’t describe the horrific 4 hour drive home in the snow. Why ruin a good weekend!

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OutoftheEasyThere is this atmosphere in New Orleans. The heat and heavy humidity. The moss draped over the branches of ancient trees. The galleries on the second floors of homes. The excesses that mark everyday life. The permissiveness known but rarely discussed. 1950s New Orleans is captured wonderfully in Out of the Easy by Ruta Sepetys and anyone who has been to New Orleans can picture the scene.

Any book that starts with “My mother is a prostitute. Not the filthy, streetwalking kind.” has something to offer. The narrator, Josie, named after a Madam, is seventeen. She’s been on her own since age seven, sleeping above the bookstore in which she works. She also works every morning cleaning up the night’s remainders after the girls at Willie’s brothel, where her mother works when she isn’t running away with Cincinatti, a dangerous but petty thief.

When the sophisticated and handsome Forrest L. Hearne, Jr. (in from Tennessee for the Sugar Bowl) enters the bookstore and engages her in intellectual conversation, she puts him on the list of fantasy fathers. When he is found dead the next day of an apparent heart attack, she feels something is wrong.

Josie’s longing to leave the Big Easy, disassociate herself with her past, is her overriding goal. She is smart and college is a dream spurred on by an acquaintance, Charlotte, who attends Smith and prods Josie to apply. But how do you leave your mother who is up to her eyeballs in the Hearne affair? How do you leave the gruff but benevolent Willie or the ‘nieces’ in her house? And Cokie, the cab driver who befriended them when they arrived in New Orleans.

There are all kinds of characters in New Orleans and they appear in Out of the Easy; the ones you hate and the ones you love. Sepetys’ writing is vivid. Her story is engrossing. Her characters are your friends. It’s three months into the new year and already my Top 10 lists has a lot of candidates. I’m betting Out of the Easy will make the final cut. It’ll be that easy!

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