by David Fulmer
Published by Harcourt
352 pages, 2005
The Big Wheezy
Reviewed by David Abrams
The showy pretense of David Fulmer's new mystery novel, Jass, set in 1908 New Orleans, begins with the title. Why, we wonder, weren't those s's replaced by z's? Because Jazz is so blandly uninformative, and this book about murder and conspiracy in the underbelly of the Big Easy desperately needs something to set it apart?
Fulmer provides this explanation midway through his book:
They called what he played jass, short for the French jaser, and claimed it was the Devil's music to be sure, a gumbo of raucous noise that was so loud and fast that the proper reading musicians and their polite white audiences didn't know what to make of it, except to throw up their hands in horror and call for someone to stamp it out before it spread.
If only Jass the book possessed even a pinch of that raucous gumbo. Instead, Fulmer gives us a hefty dish full of sausage and thick broth and not enough spice. This Atlanta author is never one to let a story get in the way of historical research. His heavy-laden paragraphs progress at the slow, stately tempo of a Ken Burns documentary. This is one instance of a detective story where you'll peek at the end not to find out whodunit, but to see if the writing ever gets any better. Sorry to disappoint, but the funereal pace of Fulmer's historical tale continues through the climax (which, as all mystery lovers know, should at least contain an exciting denouement, if not a surprising unmasking of the culprit -- neither of which are to be found here).
Jass methodically plods along as Creole detective Valentin St. Cyr (introduced in Fulmer's previous mystery, the Shamus Award-winning Chasing the Devil's Tail, 2001) tracks down a serial killer who's roaming the streets of his city's red-light district, Storyville. The murders seem to be connected to this new wild, loose music.
Lately, jass was stirring up half-a-dozen establishments, edging ever closer to Basin Street. These rough Joshuas blew their horns and the walls were tumbling down.
St. Cyr, persuaded by his friend Jelly Roll Morton ("the best-known piano man in the District" and one of several real-life jazz players peopling this novel), becomes convinced that someone is killing these "rough Joshuas" one by one -- poisoning them, slitting their throats, leaving them to die in dark alleys and lonely tenements. St. Cyr follows the clues with the dogged determination of a man on a mission. Apart from the "inner demons" of the average tormented detective, St. Cyr's motives are never fully explained, though Fulmer assures us that there's no doubt of his Sherlockian skills:
Valentin St. Cyr's successes as a detective had come less from his powers of deduction than from his ability to see behind masks and divine what drove people this way or that. It seemed he had a sixth sense that allowed him to untangle the sordid webs that miscreants wove.
This is just one example of Fulmer's limp sentences that stretch across the page, bland as over-cooked noodles. With little variety in structure and a numbing cadence that keeps the same steady beat, the paragraphs in Jass all run together in one homogenous goop. The same goes for the characters: the jaded half-breed detective, the whore with the heart of gold, the corrupt police lieutenant -- Fulmer must have got a special deal from Stock Characters Inc.
Along with those players come the kind of clichés normally not heard outside of Grade-Z movies. One character actually tells St. Cyr, without a trace of irony, "You realize that I can still crush you like an insect. I can have you beaten to within an inch of your life."
To be fair, Jass begins promisingly enough -- a character is killed in brutal, startling fashion, much like a typical prologue to a CSI episode. Fulmer then opens the story with some exquisitely detailed descriptions of Storyville as we follow St. Cyr around the saloons, bordellos and boardinghouses. However, it's not long before those exquisite details become an excruciating chore for the reader. Heavy on historical research but light on suspense, Jass is turgid and flat-footed when it should be skipping nimbly through the shadows of noir. | January 2005
David Abrams is a January Magazine contributing editor. He has written for Esquire, Glimmer Train Stories, The Greensboro Review, The Readerville Journal and other literary magazines.