Book Review: “Empire of Sin”, heaven by way of New Orleans

You can’t go wrong opening a story with an ax murder; the instilled sense of instant mystery and curiosity, the whodunit, the knowledge that within the next hundred or so pages all will be revealed.

Indeed, much is bared in Gary Krists’ “Empire of Sin: A Story of Sex, Jazz, Murder, and the Battle for Modern New Orleans”, the title alone ticking off every box in a good mystery bingo. Murder? Crime and vice? Coveted affairs and knock-down all-out bar fights? New Orleans has it all in spades, and Krist lays each out one by one until a full picture is revealed: a city trapped between eras, split between morality and tolerance, where those in the richer, white neighborhoods want reform, regulation, and re-segregation, and where those whom reform is imposed upon are poor, racially diverse, and often victims of disenfranchisement and bigotry. At the center of it all is the ‘erstwhile mayor’—the honorary title of one Tom Anderson.

Anderson is very much a man of his times. Years of ingratiating himself to the city’s corrupt powerful and elite, wriggling his way from bookkeeper to business-owner, has awarded him with his coronation as the king of the Sodom of the South. At his highest point, Anderson presides over New Orleans’ ‘demimonde’, the “madams, pimps, saloon and dance-hall proprietors, and the prostitutes and musicians they employed”, including almost 200 brothels and his own entrance to the underworld, his eponymous emporium, equipped with a cherrywood bar half a block long and his own self-published ‘Blue Book’, a guide to the many offerings and services of the city’s underbelly. As sordid patrons fill his brothels, saloons, and restaurants, Anderson must combat a push for social reform from New Orleans’ ‘respectables’ with his own glad-handing politicking, travelling on his own journey through his many marriages, business deals, and his voter-sanctioned tenure in Louisiana’s General Assembly as a representative for the Fourth Ward.

Anderson’s domain, known as Storyville, soon becomes a character in itself, founded as a mid-century segregated solution to curb the city’s rampant vice, crime, and ‘miscegenation’. Krist’s portrait of ‘the old Gallic metropolis’ is one founded in the mire of historic conquest as Louisiana passes between the European powers of France and Spain, all the while retaining a lawlessness that colors its daily life, which soon becomes embattled in post-Reconstruction politics and reformation. Krist is quick to establish what becomes the true crux of the book: the battle between social reform and elitism, and how out of this struggle emerged an entirely new, All-American art form—jazz music.

As the citizens of Storyville shuffle between the years, their neighborhood brothels, religious condemnation and racialized policing, a concentrated sound began emanating from the brothels, saloons, and front porches—a sound that could be born from no other place than New Orleans, where a great intermingling of world cultures led to rampant exchange of experimentation and creativity. This, perhaps, is where the book truly comes to life as Krist dutifully follows jazz masters like Buddy Boden and Louis Armstrong as the city progressed into the modern age, presenting a well-researched and composed history of a distinctly American musical movement. The origins of jazz music and its rife and varied influences show the true nature of the Crescent City, a vibrant and passionate embodiment of the joie de vivre that continues in New Orleans to the present day and which is perhaps the truest inheritance of the Sodom of the South’s last wild and uninhibited era.

History is never neat and clean; it’s messy, founded in chance and numerous external cause and effects, and is quite often more of a knot that a fine web one could cleanly follow, and spanning over three decades of New Orleans’ sordid age of mob killings, prostitution, and corruption is no easy task. The cohesive historical narrative of this story wobbles slightly, each topic a little disjointed from the others—this occasional fragmentation, however, is good news for the compartmentalized reader who may want to learn only one portion of New Orleans’ sordid history. In this sense, each topic can be read as a standalone without much knowledge or awareness of the other, whether it be the emergence of jazz to the serial axmen murders to the instillation of Prohibitionist reform. Krist also dedicates a significant portion of the book to this serial axman who terrorizes the city with a string of xenophobic attacks, but fails to offer any substantial closure to the reader, tacking on an afterword concerning the killer’s identity almost as an afterthought, thus letting a potentially interesting murder investigation sour into a bit of wasted potential. Here, I return to my previous statement: there’s nothing better than opening with an ax murder—I only wish the closing had been as satisfactory. New Orleans’ Axman seems to be dropped in favor of the complex politics and inter-personal relationships of the time—fascinating in itself—and the crimes themselves are relegated to the background of a city in turmoil. Although the present remained ungarnished with a neat bow, Krist nonetheless has created a multi-faceted tribute to the Crescent City, one which successfully captures a city on the edge of modernity.

In a testament to the realities of human nature, one should not expect a hero to emerge; all characters involved have their own motives, secrets, and skeletons. The only one to root for is the soul of New Orleans.

Krist, Gary. Empire of Sin: A Story of Sex, Jazz, Murder, and the Battle for Modern New Orleans. Uncorrected proof (Crown Publishers, NYC, 2014). 396 p.