Jazz, scandal, murder? Sounds like a book for me… sadly, it was only okay. As a girl who LOVES jazz (let us not forget I took a history of jazz course at university), I was excited to dive into this book… and it was promising at the beginning. It starts with the “Axeman” murders, then quickly descends into violence, racism, prostitution. Though I enjoyed individual sections of the book, the book as a whole was a challenge. Krist tried to tackle too much.
In the midst of a war against sin, police chief David Hennessy is murdered on evening. The blame fell on an Italian criminal family. Not content to let the law take its course, a crowd gathers outside of Parish Prison for an old fashioned lynching. This lynching actually leads to a relatively peaceful time in New Orleans history. It also assists the formation of one of the most famous red light districts and the brothels where jazz began to take shape. Empire of Sin follows the lives of various ne’er do wells and do gooders that battled it out for the political control of the city. The pendulum would swing back and forth between intermittent episodes of violence/sin and violence/reform. Krist attempts to create a general aura of what New Orleans must have been like, and for the most part he is successful. I could see Storyville and its inhabitants, but at the same time I didn’t feel like I properly got to know them.
As usual, it was just TOO much. Krist could have focused on the race struggle. An entire book could have been devoted to the Axeman murders. Heaven knows, enough books have been written about the jazz coming out of New Orleans at that time, but I’d have enjoyed one more. The end of the book suffered most. Krist tries to tie everything together but the narrative didn’t come together in a meaningful way. There was no larger social ‘ah ha’ moment. I don’t regret reading this book, I just wish it was better.