Someone is murdering the “sporting women” who make the Storyville section of New Orleans what it is. Or, rather, what it was—for the year is 1907. Storyville, a 14-block area that became a district of legally sanctioned vice in 1897, is a thriving hub of morally dubious activity. The fabled “oldest profession in the world” flourishes there, and so does the world’s newest art form, a style of music known as “jass” or “jazz.” (The heyday of the District, as it was known, lasted until 1917. That year, the U.S. Navy deemed it to be a threat to wartime discipline and shut it down.) This tale opens with the killing of one prostitute. Then comes another. And another. And so on. Each homicide takes place in a different Storyville brothel, and the method of murder differs each time as well. The only element that unites these crimes, other than the victim’s mode of employment, is the placement (by the killer, presumably) of a black rose on or near the corpse.
For writers today, especially those who deal in tales of historical crime, the serial murder of fallen women is an evergreen trope. A string of dead whores calls forth the cultural memory of Jack the Ripper, and it makes for a powerful, readymade theme. Yet it’s a theme that, all too often, allows writers and their readers to keep a certain distance from the dark material at hand: The poor “unfortunates” who become murder victims loom as faceless emblems of a benighted time gone by. Fulmer, to his credit, deploys this trope in a nuanced and credible way. Shrewdly, he abandons the common genre practice of using first-person narration, and thus he’s able to offer a sympathetic, God’s-eye view of the women who plied their trade in the mansions of Basin Street and vicinity. He observes, for instance, that they frequently (and understandably) sought comfort and intimacy not from men, but from each other. More generally, Fulmer excels at delivering incisive pen sketches of lived experience. In his authorial care, we come to know—or believe that we know—what it felt like, and sounded like, and smelled like, to stroll the banquettes of the Vieux Carré in the early years of a new century.
Writerly flair also gives Fulmer an edge when it comes to populating the tale with actual personages of that time and place. That standard technique of historical fiction can result in awkward efforts to blend historical truth with fictional truth. (It can be especially problematic in a detective story: Readers know that such “real” characters aren’t plausible murder suspects.) But Fulmer has a deft way of bringing into his narrative such people as Tom Anderson, the so-called King of Storyville; E.J. Bellocq, a photographer whose portraits of Storyville prostitutes form a powerful, haunting record of those women and their milieu; the fabled whorehouse madams Lulu White and “French” Emma Johnson; and, most centrally, the cornet player Buddy Bolden—a titanic presence in the early history of jazz and also, in Fulmer’s telling, a tragic figure who was essentially driven insane by his own talent.
Another emissary from the history of turn-of-the-century New Orleans, jazzman Jelly Roll Morton, offers the bit of aphoristic wisdom that provides a title for the book: “You best be careful if you go chasin’ the devil’s tail, ’cause you just might catch it.” Fulmer has Morton spout that line to Valentin St. Cyr, the fictional sleuth who has star billing here. St. Cyr, half African and half Italian by descent, functions ably in the half-lit, half-legal world of the District. Employed as an enforcer and problem solver by Anderson, and by some of the savvier Storyville madams, he is just the right fellow to launch a hunt for the “devil” who’s terrorizing the Crescent City.
That hunt, unfortunately, isn’t as compelling as it might be. Readers have scant opportunity to follow St. Cyr in working through a set of clues, because real clues are thin on the ground. (That black-rose motif? It never amounts to much.) There’s a big, stinky red herring: Each of the slain women had a clear connection to Bolden, and Bolden conspicuously lacks an alibi for each murder. There’s a long, anguished, but essentially empty quest by St. Cyr to find an alternative explanation for the killings. (St. Cyr, a boyhood friend of cornet player, never harbors any doubt as to Bolden’s innocence.) Finally, there’s a flash of insight that leads the detective to discern the unlikely suspect who is, in fact, the culprit. Fulmer, though, does little to set the stage for that epiphany. Some readers will be able to guess at least part of the solution, but only because there are only a few directions in which the story can go. Chasing the Devil’s Tail, in short, is a tale in which the chase has far greater resonance than the moment of capture.