David Fulmer’s Chasing the Devil’s Tail takes place in turn of the 20th century New Orleans, in the small, vibrant red light district of Storyville. It is the start of jazz, or jass, from the French word ‘jasser’, meaning to chatter, and the city is alive with dissipated characters, rivers of alcohol, loose women, and high/low notes of jassing horns, finding their voices. When a number of ‘sporting gals’ turn up murdered, the area rises to alarm. Valentine St. Cyr, a pale skin black man, who often passes as Sicilian, is a private detective for Tom Anderson, the historical self-appointed King of Storyville. Valentine St. Cyr takes the case, but soon discovers that his childhood friend, Buddy, the King, Bolden, the historical father of jazz, is the prime suspect. Along the way, we walk the streets of New Orleans with St. Cyr, meet characters from history, and happen upon a few scenes that would make the church ladies squirm. The end is surprising, but not entirely unexpected.
Fulmer’s strength lies in his ability to create a scene. A few deft strokes of his pen, and we are sitting in Lulu White’s front room on Basin Street, smelling the stench from the road and watching the crystal chandelier sway and gleam between the fans. For readers who are anxious to live in another world for a while, this is a great place to go.
The scenes are vibrant, but the characters are only mostly vivid. I want to know as much as I can about these characters, and I am left asking questions about their pasts and motivations. Fulmer does a better job developing his lesser characters, particularly the historically based characters. I wonder at St. Cyr’s motivations at some points, though he is nicely developed on the whole, but the antagonist, Picot, is not as fleshed out as I would like. He hates St. Cyr, this much is clear, but the reasons are unclear. I want the connection between Picot and St. Cyr to get more page time, but I just may have to read the next few books to get the background I want. Fulmer weaves historical characters in with made up ones, and the result is believable and seamless. The characters from history, Lulu White, Buddy Bolden, E. J. Bellocq, to name a few, bound off the page.
This is a compelling, clear, and carefully composed story. It is heavy on setting and character development, and if you are inclined to pass this one up because it’s billeted as a mystery, don’t. This story is worth an afternoon or two. Plus, you’ll really want to visit New Orleans afterwards, which is always a good thing these days.