In turn-of-the-century New Orleans, the red-light district called Storyville is unrivalled in notoriety, a center of drugs, booze, prostitution, and the musical craze called jazz. Since Storyville’s many bordellos have a racial hierarchy that mirrors that of the district, the murders of two black prostitutes in separate incidents raise little concern. Creole private detective Valentin St. Cyr is hired by political boss Tom Anderson, the King of Storyville, to investigate the killings. The only clue is a black rose left on the body of each victim. Valentin moves gingerly through Storyville’s colorful subcultures, “steeped in a gumbo of race, color, and class.” His helpers include Beansoup, a resourceful preadolescent street urchin, and Justine, a melancholy working girl who at length becomes his lover. When police tag womanizing jazzman Buddy Bolden—like Anderson and such other characters as Jelly Roll Morton, notorious madam Lulu White, and photographer E.J. Bellocq a real-life figure—as their chief suspect, Valentin, who grew up with Bolden, stands alone in the conviction that his childhood friend is innocent. As the death toll rises, police step up their investigation, and Valentin finds himself regularly butting heads with racist police lieutenant Picot. Secret lives abound (Valentin himself confesses that he was born Valentino Saracena in Sicily). Is Bolden’s increasingly erratic behavior the cause or the result of widespread suspicion?
Brimming with backstories and historical tidbits, Fulmer’s debut works better as period evocation than as mystery. The plot doesn’t so much thicken as cover the same ground over and over in repetitive circles.