Brendan's Reviews > Chasing the Devil's Tail

Chasing the Devil's Tail by David Fulmer
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May 20, 10

bookshelves: 2010, book-club, mystery, fiction, history-journalism
Read in May, 2010

Chasing the Devil's Tail is an historical mystery set in the Storyville era of New Orleans, when prostitution was legal in a specific section of the city and seedy stuff was happening in it. The story revolves around Valentin St. Cyr, a creole detective who can pass as white, thus giving him access to halls of power and dens of inequity. He investigates several murders in brothels, each victim a prostitute connected to his friend, the early jazz (jass) pioneer, Buddy Bolden. It's an atmospheric novel with solid characterization and a decent (but not great) mystery. Some additional thoughts:

* The historical research in the novel is really solid, and it shows. The details of the storyville era leap off the page, becoming quite vivid. Fulmer does a great job integrating his fictional people in with the numerous real people the novel characterizes.
* The best sequences describe the music of King Bolden and his band. Bolden is credited as one of the originators of jazz, playing his coronet with a frantic style that attracted people from all walks of life. Fulmer brings these scenes to life with a sure hand for detail and the action of the music.
* The novel's treatment of the prostitutes works really well. It's frank about the difficult lives they lead and the challenges they encounter, but it doesn't caricature them. This book reminds me of Sin in the Second City, which also seeks to make plain the harsh realities of the prostitute's life without losing sight of their humanity. As one person in my reading group put it, this book reminds us that "whores are people too."
* The weakest part of the novel is the mystery. It really serves as a vehicle for the atmosphere and the excellent setting, but it doesn't shine as an example of the genre. That said, I didn't mind at all that the mystery doesn't drive the story very strongly.
* My mystery reading group got a chance to do a phone conference with Fulmer after we'd discussed the novel for about an hour. It was interesting to hear how much the history drove the novel (quite a bit) and to hear about his writing and plotting processes.
* The vagaries of the publishing industry were interesting as well. He'd originally planned to do a series of novels about the emergence of jazz, following the scene from city to city through the eras. Alas, the publisher was much more interested in seeing additional novels in this setting than in seeing the other settings emerge. The story about the title is pretty funny too -- the publisher wanted a different title than Red Light, which was the original, so Fulmer and his agent came up with this one. And then he worked it into the book to credit Jelly Roll Morton with the phrase. He phrased the epigraph to say "credited to Jelly Roll Morton" because he'd made it up. He later learned that some historians of jazz were tearing their hair out to find the source of that quote. Ha ha.

Worth a read, for sure.
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