★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Empire of sin: A story of sex, jazz, murder, and the battle for modern New Orleans by Gary Krist | October 2014 | Crown Publishers, a division of Random House | Hardcover $26.00
Empire of Sin re-creates the remarkable story of New Orleans’ thirty-years war against itself, pitting the city’s elite “better half” against its powerful and long-entrenched underworld of vice, perversity, and crime. This early-20th-century battle centers on one man: Tom Anderson, the undisputed czar of the city’s Storyville vice district, who fights desperately to keep his empire intact as it faces onslaughts from all sides. Surrounding him are the stories of flamboyant prostitutes, crusading moral reformers, dissolute jazzmen, ruthless Mafiosi, venal politicians, and one extremely violent serial killer, all battling for primacy in a wild and wicked city unlike any other in the world.
I’m almost ashamed to admit that I hadn’t read any Gary Krist books before now. In my defense, my TBR pile is a pretty intimidating mountain and there are only so many hours in a day. But that TBR pile just got a little bigger, because I now feel compelled to add the rest of Krist’s books to it!
I opened this book without any preconceived ideas of the history of New Orleans. Oh, I knew the basics: it was a French and Spanish colonial city, a major port for immigrants and trade, and rather infamous for the level of debauchery tolerated in certain districts. And really, that’s all you need to know before jumping into Empire of Sin — it’s a book for anyone who’s curious about crime, politics, music, and big personalities in “The Big Easy” after the Civil War, not just already well-versed historians.
Empire of Sin is written almost like a true crime novel… if you count “playing jazz music” or “being Italian” as a crime, which apparently many powerful people in New Orleans did. There are plenty of sordid details about prostitution and gambling in the city’s legally specified sin district, but Krist also writes about racial tensions, class and wealth and social mobility — or lack of it, murderers and serial killers, and the birth of a new kind of music on top of it all. There’s plenty of tension when the author treats the reader to detailed narrative walk-throughs of particular crimes or incidents, but the scope of the book is actually pretty broad and covers quite a lot of ground. Also included are several photos and other illustrations as well as quotes from newspapers and eyewitness accounts (which I simply love). The author obviously did plenty of research.
One of the things I really liked about this book is its careful avoidance of outright moral judgement. For example, Josie Arlington, prominent madam of a relatively high-class brothel, is treated as not just an ignorant slut or pathetic “fallen woman” but as an actual person with complicated motivations and practical business sense. The author doesn’t shy away from the problems that were caused or intensified by the rise of Jim Crow laws in the city, either. Black and mixed race merchants, craftsmen, and artists who had enjoyed comparative economic and social freedom even during and immediately after the Civil War began to be denied privileges and even basic human rights as institutionalized racism became more common. Members of the white upper classes aren’t necessarily villainized, though; Krist is careful to explain their motivations from their own points of view, in terms of protecting their families from vice and making their city a safe place to live and conduct what they thought of as ethically acceptable business. It’s an old story, and one that continues in a modern form to this day all over the country.
All in all, this is definitely a book I’d recommend to anyone who is used to reading fast-paced thrillers and mysteries but is looking for a little nonfiction for some balance in their reading diet. I think it’s also an obvious choice for folks who are interested in Southern history, especially post-Civil War social problems and even the history of jazz and associated forms of music. It’s also a good starting point for anyone who needs to do some serious research into this particular time and place, as it includes a lovely bibliography and plenty of helpful source notes.
This is a partial draft version of a full review that was submitted for publication to the Galveston Daily News in October 2014. My opinions do not reflect those of my employer.
Publication information: Krist, Gary. Empire of Sin: A Story of Sex, Jazz, Murder, and the Battle for Modern New Orleans. New York: Crown, 2014. Print.
Source: This review is based on an ARC that I received from the publisher via a Goodreads giveaway.
Disclaimer: I am not compensated, monetarily or otherwise, for reviews of books or other products.