****Paid in Spades

New Orleans, French Quarter

By Richard Helms – In this fast-paced crime thriller, award-winning author Richard Helms guides you to the darker corners of New Orleans, where at any moment the extravagant pleasures of the food, the culture, and the music can turn deadly.

Pat Gallegher makes just enough money to get by, playing his cornet in Holliday’s, a seedy French Quarter watering hole. A gambling addiction caused many of his more recent troubles, but a twelve-step program has helped him reclaim some normalcy, if you can call it that: “One thing about being in a recovery program, you meet the most interesting people.”

One of those interesting people is Cabby Jacks, who got him started in Gamblers Anonymous and insisted he take it seriously. Now Gallegher believes part of his recovery depends on righting the balance in his life by doing what he terms “favors.” He has a particular skill in finding people and things that are lost. One of those people is Cabby Jacks.

History is responsible for Gallegher’s rocky relationships with the cops. But those are balanced by excellent interactions with his woman friend, Merlie, with the bar’s owner, Shorty, and with the other musicians. The dialog in Gallegher’s interactions with friend and foe is full of sly humor, not always appreciated, but sparkling throughout.

Merlie also needs a favor. She runs a shelter for teenage “runaways, throwaways, and other destitute children.” One of her charges needs surgery, but the dad needs to sign the consent and no one can find him. Another job for Gallegher.

Helms builds the tension nicely when tracking down the father leads Gallegher into the swampy wilderness where an oil pipeline is being laid. The hunt for Cabby leads him to a ship docked at the port of New Orleans and unexpected exposure to ultra-violent Brazilian gangs trying for a toe-hold in Louisiana.

Gallegher is not a lone actor here. He gets help from a former Secret Service man and calls on his long-time acquaintance Scat Boudreaux, whom Gallegher believes may be “the most dangerous man in America.” The real dark horse of the piece is a young guitarist who understands more about surveillance and guns than any young musician ought to.

Author Helms has a knack for making all these people vivid and interesting. I could read a whole novel about any of them. The plot edges close to spiraling into unbelievability near the end, but the strength of the writing and the characters keeps it together.

Photo: David Ohmer, Creative Commons license

Big Screen Music: A Tuba to Cuba

Two supremely entertaining documentaries in theaters now on the power of music and dedication of musicians. Yesterday, Aretha Franklin’s Amazing Grace, which we had to wait almost a half-century to see on screen.

A Tuba to Cuba

Unbelievably, two movies in the space of two weeks have featured a tuba (see review of A Woman at War), but coincidence has struck gold. A Tuba to Cuba tells the story of a two-week Cuban adventure by members of New Orleans’s Preservation Hall Jazz Band who in 2015 traveled there for a series of concerts, get-acquainted sessions, and impromptu events. The documentary was directed by T.G. Herrington and Danny Clinch (trailer).

The band members of all ages find much musical commonality with their Cuban brethren, which they trace back to African influence, and they delight in their discoveries and in each other. Each member of the current band on the trip has a chance to shine as both performer and person.

Leader of the goodwill expedition is Ben Jaffe, whose parents, Allan and Sandra Jaffe,  moved to New Orleans in the early 1960s, loved the music, and feared it was being lost. His father played the tuba, and started the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, for which the entire nation owes him profound gratitude.

The scenes around Havana, as well as several other towns, show the expected 1960s American cars and colorful houses, and a gorgeous concert hall in their final stop. But above and beyond the physical surroundings, the people—especially some jazz-loving young Cuban musicians—are terrific. The trip inspired the later PHJB album So It Is.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 100%; audiences 82%.

“Big Chief Wears a Golden Crown”

Masking IndianThis week Princeton University’s Lewis Center for the Arts hosted a panel discussion with two leaders in the tradition of New Orleans Black Masking Indians. Darryl Montana, great-grandson of one of the tradition’s founders, and Demond Melancon, whom Montana calls the “world’s best beader” described masking’s origins and modern significance.

Masking—familiar to viewers of the television series Treme, (to my regret, only four seasons long!) in which Clarke Peters played Big Chief Albert Lambreaux—is a nearly two-hundred-year-old tradition that has various origin stories. In part it may have begun as resistance to early rules prohibiting negroes from wearing feathers, in part as a shout-out to the Native Americans who helped runaway slaves, and in part as a strong expression of individuality and pride in an era of repression.

The Chiefs of New Orleans’s nearly 40 black masking tribes make one suit a year. Each suit has multiple parts, can weigh up to 150 pounds, and takes about 5000 hours to construct. Because masking is a “competitive sport,” Montana said, the costumes are generally made in secret, their design and significance revealed only when the Indians come out on Carnival Day (Mardi Gras).

In recognition of Melancon’s artistic skills, in 2012, the elders of the Mardi Gras Indian community dubbed him Chief Demond Melancon of the Young Seminole Hunters, with his very own tribe in the Lower Ninth Ward. Increasingly, the creation of suits is considered a significant contemporary art form, and its best practitioners keep pushing the envelope of creative possibility. Melancon’s suit on display at the Lewis Center tells the story of an enslaved Ghanian prince brought to New Orleans in the 1830’s. He lost an arm after a dispute with police, and was thereafter called Bras Coupé. Every beaded element of this stunning suit carries symbolic significance.

masking Indian suit

photo: Vicki Weisfeld

Montana is the Big Chief of the Yellow Pocahontas Hunters Black Masking Indian Tribe and made the lavish lavender suit pictured. Completion often involves family members and select friends.

Montana explained that he does not want “to take what I learned from the Chief to the grave with me,” and now makes a concerted effort to engage the next generation in the masking tradition. “You have to keep (young people) busy,” he said, and he believes that through the intensity of the suit-making process, the time commitment, and the camaraderie of working on a culturally meaningful project, he’s found a way to do that.

Cocktail Party Conversation Stopper

In case this slipped by you too, the Big Chief mentioned the massive amount of Mardi Gras beads bead-deviling New Orleans’s storm drains. Last fall 93,000 pounds-worth were excavated from merely a five-block stretch of St. Charles Avenue! Of course, they were wet.

Intrigued? Here’s More + Pictures!

The House of Dance and Feathers: A Museum by Ronald Lewis
Mardi Gras Indians
by Michael Smith
From the Kingdom of Kongo to Congo Square: Kongo Dances and the Origins of the Mardi Gras Indians – Joroen Dewulf’s new theory about the origins of the black masking Indian tradition
Treme from David Simon and George Pelecanos for HBO. Watch the beginning for free.

****And So It Began (Delaney Book 1)

Child_beauty_pageant

photo: Lloyd Gallman, creative commons license

By Owen Mullen – Brave of a resident of Scotland and the Greek Islands to write a police procedural set in one of America’s most iconic cities, one with a strong and unique culture, history, and personality. Still, he’s chosen New Orleans for the first in his series featuring protagonist Vincent Delaney—former NOPD detective, now a private investigator.

For the most part the character of the Big Easy comes through in the details Mullen chooses to provide, though the deep trauma of Hurricane Katrina receives only a single mention. There’s maybe too little attention to food and the weather, some nice references to music (Delaney plays in a band), and directly related to the story, a reopening of the old wounds of NOPD corruption that have helped poison race relations in the city.

Delaney has three—make that four—issues on his hands. First is a background hazard in the form of Julian Boutte, a mentally deranged African American man whose brother Delaney killed a decade back when he was still an NOPD detective. Boutte has escaped from prison, and there’s no question that he plans to kill Delaney.

A group of African American small business people from the North Le Moyne area are having to pay protection money they can ill afford and seek Delaney’s help.

The third problem, and the one that takes up most of the book’s plot deals with a bizarre phenomenon of American life, the child beauty/talent pageant. Across the southern states, children who participate in these pageants are being murdered. One of the victims is a five-year-old boy, killed only minutes after winning with a memorable Charlie Chaplin imitation—inspiration for the paperback’s striking cover (below).

The FBI leads the investigation, but there are some 5000 such pageants in the US every year, and they cannot begin to cover them all, so bring in local help. Delaney’s niece is a pageant participant, which gives him an ideal opportunity to meet organizers, participants, obsessed parents, and, possibly, a killer.

While the culprit in Mullen’s tale is more obvious early on than the elusive true-life murderer of JonBenet Ramsey, still at large after twenty-one years, the child beauty pageant world is ripe for exploration. Mullen does a nice job highlighting the different motivations of several sets of parents and their young daughters.

If all these work challenges weren’t sufficient, Delaney has woman troubles, though he has a mostly good relationship with his sister and brother-in-law, as well as several friends still on the force. Mullen describes the interaction between Delaney and his family and friends warmly, and they feel real.

There are more books in the Delaney series to come, and especially if you like the New Orleans setting (I miss Treme!), they may just put the chickory in your coffee.

***Casting Bones

mardi-gras mask, New Orleans

photo: Larry Johnson, creative commons license

By Don Bruns – This is the first of a new series of police procedurals set in what the publisher calls “one of the most fascinating cities in the world: New Orleans.” Bruns—with five books in his Caribbean series and seven in the popular “Stuff” series—delights in the Big Easy’s atmosphere and culture in creating his backdrops, colorful cast of characters, and the shenanigans that take place. It’s a story that could take place only there, which is a real plus—like a visit without all the calories.

Disgraced former Detroit police detective Quentin Archer has relocated to Nawlins to restart his career. His ability to stay in Detroit floundered when he fingered a fellow Motor City cop—and, by the way, his two policeman brothers—for drug dealing. Suffice it to say, he’s a man who has to watch his back.

His interpersonal relations aren’t that much better in his new job. He can’t trust his partner, who admits to selling information about cases to unknown parties, and the mercurial sergeant in charge overtly dislikes the Detroit man. In the way of supervisors everywhere, he can make Archer’s life miserable and does.

When the body of a New Orleans juvenile court judge is found floating in the Mississippi River, the principal question on Archer’s mind is, Why? Why shoot Judge David Lerner? Was it because of his notoriously harsh sentences? Or did it have to do with the mysterious printouts found in the back of his Jag? Before any of these questions can be answered, in a bit of piling on,  two more judges are dead—one in a strange, possibly staged, motor vehicle accident, and the other in a mugging-gone-wrong.

In true New Orleans style, at least as much is hidden as is revealed. It’s as if the murky waters of the muddy Mississippi obscure the vision of the entire town, and no one seems to want the truth. Meanwhile, his partner—with the connivance of the higher-ups concerned about tourism—is on the verge of railroading a young black kitchen worker for Lerner’s death. Archer has only days to come up with an alternative scenario that sticks.

He finds help from an unusual ally when he encounters Solange Cordray, the beautiful daughter of a voodoo priestess. Because this is a multiple point-of-view novel, you read Cordray’s interpretation of events as well as Archer’s, his partner’s, and others’. It’s clear that her special knowledge of events past and future is not a cynical fabrication, and that, although what she perceives as messages from the spirits is not always clear, she sincerely believes them.

Some loose ends, especially regarding Archer’s Detroit woes, are not totally tied up by this book’s end, suggesting sequels to come. The publisher under-invested in proofreading, but, bottom line, this is a fast-paced read with great atmosphere and interesting characters and situations.

**The French Detective: A Novel of New Orleans in 1900

New Orleans, French Quarter

(photo: David Ohmer, Creative Commons license)

By O’Neil De Noux – A jambalaya of factors go into a reader’s enjoyment of a crime novel, and this one is definitely a (mostly) flavorful mix. De Noux has selected a time and place ripe for drama. New Orleans is consistently intriguing on many levels, most particularly for its diversity of strong cultures stewing together in the oppressive Louisiana heat. The time period, the turn of the last century, is filled with dramatic possibility, because of the city’s changing demographics and because of the real-life occurrence of the Robert Charles race riots, which De Noux draws into his story.

The challenges to New Orleans Police Detective Jacques Dugas begin when a four-year-old boy is kidnapped from the city’s Vieux Carré, at this point in its history an Italian and Sicilian district. Mostly recent immigrants, the residents have little use for the police and cooperation is scant, even when Dugas has the volunteer translating assistance of glamorous young Evelyn Dominici—Italian-speaking daughter of a Corsican jeweler and an English Lady. The Corsican is a New Orleans resident, but Lady Evelyn’s mother lives in England, ensconced in a drafty castle with her lover.

Dugas and his translator, rapidly falling for each other and flirting outrageously, pursue the many potential leads in the case until the investigation is derailed by the riots. The book is populated with white supremacists, Italian citizens committees, Sicilian mafia, Irish cops, and, always at the fringes, the blacks and the poor. Jambalaya. One delicious aspect of the book is how often Dugas, Evelyn Dominici, and their colleagues must stop to eat. Reading this book is enough to make the reader put on five pounds by literary osmosis.

Yet all is not well-served in this literary endeavor. This is a self-published book, which to me means the author-as-publisher takes on extra responsibilities. While De Noux attempts to absolve himself from any errors via a note saying “If you found a typo or two in the book, please don’t hold it against us. We are a small group of volunteers . . .” There are many, many more than a typo or two. The writer’s role, as John Gardner had it, is to create a fictional dream in which writer and reader are co-conspirators. Keep the dream going, and the reader continues to believe in the story created. Tyops wake you up.

Such lack of attention cannot help but make the reader wonder about the care expended on plot, characterization, and other literary matters. In this book, the plot raced hither and yon so often, I occasionally lost the thread, and it left loose ends (who wrote all those notes?). The character of Evelyn was, to me, unbelievable in her liberated attitudes for a woman of that era and an English Lady, no less. Nor was the attention devoted to the attractiveness of her figure interesting on a sustained basis.

Nevertheless, I actually enjoyed this book on its own terms, as a window into a pivotal time in one of America’s most fascinating cities.

A longer version of this review is available here on the Crime Fiction Lover website.