by Penn Williamson
Published by Warner Books
432 pages, 2000
Buy it online
Not Forgotten, Not Forgiven
Reviewed by Frederick Zackel
New Orleans is a city obsessed with its past -- which means it's the ideal setting for Mortal Sins, a novel full of historic transgressions that make for a deliciously steamy read. In this fine first mystery by Penn Williamson (a pseudonym of bestselling romance novelist Penelope Williamson), the reader luxuriates in a heady, Jazz Age atmosphere of absinthe cocktails laced with cocaine, of gaslight and camellias, of beaded curtains and mosquito netting -- and violent murder on a century-old onetime sugar plantation enchantingly named Sans Souci.
"He stood naked on the sagging porch of the old slave shack," relates the book's opening, "with moonlight burning his skin to the smooth ivory of a marble gravestone. He might have been waiting for his lover to come."
The gentleman in question is 30-year-old Charles St. Claire, a criminal defense attorney and a member of one of New Orleans' oldest and most distinguished Creole families. Within moments his throat will be slit by a common cane knife; he will drown choking on his own blood; that slashed throat will stand out among St. Claire's other six cuts and slashes. As police later recall, "It had been a bad death, a bad murder. The act of someone who had no stopping place."
Remy Lelourie, a glamorous Hollywood actress and the dead man's bride of five months, is the most likely suspect. Which isn't surprising, since the cops find her wearing a gray silk dress, the front of which "looked like someone had taken a bucket of blood and drenched her with it." Not only are Remy's feet caked and splattered with dried blood, but "she even had blood in her hair." Just to enhance the visual, Remy doesn't appear to be "wearing anything underneath that single sheath of blood-soaked silk." And if all of this weren't enough to destroy her claim of innocence, there's also her thumbprint on the murder weapon.
Homicide detective Damon Rourke, assigned to this case, doesn't want to believe in Remy Lelourie's guilt. She's his former lover, after all, a woman who jilted him 11 years ago before running off to stardom. Remy represents "the most dangerous moment of [Rourke's] life. She had lied to him and used him and left him, hurt him in ways unaccountable and unmeasurable, but he'd always wanted her anyway. He had never stopped wanting her." Seeing her again -- after all this time -- was "like wrapping his fist around broken glass." Her touch burns "low and deep in his belly."
Further complicating Rourke's investigation is the demise, not long after St. Claire's slaying, of Vinny McGinty, a thug who turns up garroted on the banks of a nearby bayou, "his eye sockets sucked clean by the crawdaddies." McGinty had worked for a local gangster, Casey Maguire, who smuggles in the illegal "hootch" that keeps local speakeasies running. Rourke doesn't initially figure that these murders are connected -- but they are. As are all of the other deaths that will follow.
Mortal Sins serves up a vintage N'awlins, the home of "old Creole families whose names, like their cypress houses, had been built to last forever." The book's precise setting is July 1927. A time when thunderclouds can turn the sky the color of old blood and the heat makes the air itself crackle. A time when that streetcar named Desire was segregated and blacks dared not sit anywhere but in the back of the vehicle. A time when cops still thought a dead man's eyes could hold an image of his killer and juries still saw fingerprints as exotic and bizarre as voodoo. A time when "the stuttering pop-pop-pop of the tommy gun" meant death on the streets.
Rourke is very much a character born from this time and place, a figure as finely detailed as Southern lace. He grew up on the mean side of the tracks. Now a widower, he lives with his mother, Maeve, and his daughter, Kate, in a house that once belonged to his mother's boyfriend. Rourke is a gambler who takes risks only a madman would go for and wears "expensive-as-hell alligator wing tips" bought with his racetrack winnings. He carries a blue eight-pointed star tattoo on the inside of his left wrist, which he acquired from the voodooienne Mamma Rae when he was 14 years old -- a tattoo design he shares with three others from his childhood, including Sean O'Mara, his missing partner, who disappeared years ago and is presumed to have died in the swamps. The detective drinks homemade beer from lard buckets and plays blues on his saxophone. He drives both a Stutz Bearcat Roadster and a lovely Indian Big Chief motorbike. He owns and flies airplanes, fighters that he brought home from the Great War in Europe. "No matter how low he did go," Williamson writes, "he always went there in style."
Rourke is an honest cop in a dishonest town. ("I've never seen you take so much as a free cup of java -- you're so fucking pure," says his new partner, Fiorello "Fio" Prankowski.) And he's no match for Remy Lelourie.
The fetching new widow St. Claire is a marvelous femme fatale, "a thoroughly modern girl with her bobbed hair and painted nails, her rolled stockings and rouged knees." Remy could be the archetype of the Dangerous Woman, as Williamson describes her: "She seduced you in a way you didn't dare confess, not even to your priest. You looked at her and you saw a raw hunger and desperation for life, not redemption and not salvation, but life." Although Rourke must work to convict Remy for the brutal murder of her husband, he finds himself drawn to her, and she to him. At one point during their long descent into passion, he thinks, "Loving that girl again, that crazy, wild girl, had been like plunging your fist into a fire and not feeling the pain, even as all the flesh melted off your bones."
Backdropping this sexual drama is a web of past and intensely personal connections that contribute to the unfolding contemporary mystery. Apparently, Rourke's mother long ago stole Remy's father, Reynard Lelourie, from his family -- an act that may have led to Reynard's being poisoned. Before he was killed, Charles St. Claire was known to beat his beautiful wife and to keep a "colored mistress," Lucille Durand, the spouse of prizefighter and current prison inmate LeRoy Washington, who just happens to be one of Rourke's friends. Durand's mother once worked as a live-in housekeeper for the lovers Reynard Lelourie and Maeve Rourke. Washington used to work out at gangster Casey Maguire's gym, until money disappeared from the gym's cash box. Shortly after Maguire's younger sibling, Bobby Joe, accused Washington of theft, that same brother was found dead and Washington went to prison for the crime -- but was he framed?
On top of all this, the house in which Charles St. Claire's life ended -- the legendary Sans Souci -- was built by Remy's great-great-great-grandfather. However, he lost it in a crooked card game to an ancestor of St. Claire's 70 years ago, on the same night that a man died violently in a duel fought "under the oaks" -- "not for cheatin' over cards, but for cheatin' at love."
Williamson's only weakness in Mortal Sins may be this tumbling interconnectedness. Though she continually reminds us, "This is New Orleans -- pick any two people at random and you could eventually discover a connection between them," by the end of her tale, so many familial knots have been tied, only to be unraveled, the reader feels (as does the ultimately unmasked killer) that all the sins committed over time have come to overwhelming life.
Of course, this fault is offset by the author's enviable skill at breathing fiery life into a great old city's lust-filled past. Reading Mortal Sins, you can almost hear the "laughter mixed with the jingle of streetcar bells, the ring of mule hooves on cobblestones, and the echoing booms of ships unloading bananas at the wharf." Here in the City That Care Forgot, a woman's scream sounds the same as a church bell, or a canvas awning can snap open like a gunshot.
This story is great pleasure to read, reminding us that old transgressions, like old times, are not forgotten down in Dixie. Nor are they forgiven. | August 2000
Frederick Zackel is a contributing editor of January Magazine.