Storyville, New Orleans’ storied red-light district, has its alluring, legendary façade ripped away in this brilliant, searing exposé.
It’s 1913, and Tom Anderson, in fact and in this meticulously researched fiction, is the unofficial mayor of the District. Francis Muldoon, Turner’s protagonist, is one of Anderson’s troubleshooters; a dependable fellow, he reports problems in the saloons and the whores’ cribs. He has known both glory (as a champion high-school runner) and disgrace (as a rookie cop, he failed to protect another officer in a long-ago race riot). Turner’s story moves forward on two tracks. First, Anderson’s empire is being threatened by New York thugs—the Parker brothers—opening rival saloons. And Anderson, a lapsed Catholic, is still haunted by his failure as a cop. At the center of the action is “the girl”—secretly Anderson’s stepdaughter. He impregnated her while she was still in school, and she left town. Now she’s back, singing in the Parkers’ beer garden. Seeking reconciliation, the love-struck Anderson uses Muldoon as a go-between. Energized by her stunning beauty, Muldoon sees today’s singer becoming tomorrow’s whore, and sets out to save her. He’s had a chance meeting with another historical character, Bellocq, famous photographer of prostitutes. Looking at their dead eyes in Bellocq’s studio has confirmed Muldoon’s view of the sex trade as a destructive machine—an unoriginal viewpoint articulated here with a matchless sorrow. The turf war builds to a wildly suspenseful, bloody climax. Then the other shoe drops as Muldoon indeed finds his own form of redemption.
Turner’s second (after the 2003 novel 1929) has a sustained somber eloquence sure to win acclaim and perhaps a well-deserved prize.