With Chasing the Devil's Tail David Fulmer gave us a captivating mystery set in turn of the century New Orleans, a city reeking of sweat and liquor where the sound of jass was heard blaring throughout the seedy brothels and bars and voodoo was constantly feared and respected. As Fulmer portrays it, New Orleans was a morally deprived culture where everyone was up to something they shouldn't have been. Real people like Buddy Bolden and Jelly Roll Morton played a key part in the narrative (Fulmer made good use of what little we know of Bolden's past), and the fictional characters fit right in. Although it was a great mystery, the real attraction of the book was the way the notoriously sleazy city was brought to life, much like London and it's inhabitants provide a colorful backdrop in Dickens novels. Fulmer convincingly combined two passions - jazz and mysteries - and created an award-winning page-turner.
And now we have Jass , a sequel to the first. The cover indicates that this is "A Valentin St. Cyr Mystery," which prepares us for more of the same - Fulmer has found his story and he is sticking to it. He provides plenty of background details on the characters and events of the previous book so that newcomers will understand the backstory while those who read the first book a while ago get a refresher course.
All the old characters are here, from Justine, St. Cyr's girlfriend with a mysterious secret, to Anderson, the man who runs the town through legal and illegal measures. Jelly Roll is back, and a young Louis and the Colored Waif's Home play a minor role. In addition a handful of new denizens add to the colorful characters created in the first. Once again, Fulmer shows a knack for transforming the usual mystery clichés - the detective wrestling with inner demons, the cop who stands in the way of the investigation - into interesting subplots that don't seem forced.
In Chasing the Devil's Tail the killer was after prostitutes; this time jass musicians are the victims. St.Cyr has to pick up the clues by visiting saloons, brothels, all the usual places you would go to find seedy folk who might know a thing or two. Along the way St. Cyr runs into problems with Lieutenant Picot, who won't waste time investigating murders of worthless blacks, and uncooperative madams who won't share information for fear of being shut down. The events are set two years after the last investigation, and clearly things haven't changed much.
But because Chasing the Devil's Tail was such a great read, it's perhaps inevitable that Jass would fall a bit short. Because Fulmer is establishing a series, much of this book is spent shaping the character of Valentin St. Cyr. While this is important work to do if he is to be a recurring character, the rich detail of New Orleans that made Chasing the Devil's Tail such an enthralling read is lacking. St. Cyr still travels around the city, but there aren't any historical asides or minor characters that give the setting the depth of the previous one. Fulmer's description of Buddy Bolden fleshed out an enigmatic figure in a way that emphasized his importance, while his descriptions of the brothels were appalling; one could only imagine the lengths that people would go to satisfy their bizarre tendencies. Fulmer also expertly captured the class structure in the city by showing the racial biases towards Creoles, octoroons, and so on. There's much less of that local flavor permeating through Jass , and it's sorely missed.
Despite this flaw, Jass is still worth reading, a mystery that will definitely appeal to jazz fans and mystery buffs alike. It's still a great read filled with crisp prose, unpredictable twists and turns, and none of the usual detective story clichés. Obviously this won't be the last of St. Cyr and his New Orleans exploits. Fulmer has found a setting rich with potential storylines and a storyteller's ability to capture them.