Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Windin' Man

Still a fan! Because David Fulmer, author of the Valentin St. Cyr mysteries (set in turn-of-the-20th-century New Orleans), gave a shout-out to the Odyssey Award on his "Dion page," I discovered a Graham-narrated novel that I thought I might enjoy more than Eric Dickey or James Patterson. I braved Interlibrary Loan to obtain a copy of Chasing the Devil's Tail (the first Valentin St. Cyr novel ... you know how I like to be first), and I was not disappointed.

Valentin St. Cyr is a multiracial (Italian, African, Native American) private eye working for the "Mayor of Storyville," Tom Anderson. Storyville was New Orlean's red-light district, and the Creole St. Cyr is Anderson's enforcer, or so Anderson thinks. St. Cyr's childhood friend, Buddy Bolden, is playing his controversial "jass" in Storyville's bars and brothels. Anderson believes that the heavy-drinking Bolden is responsible for a series of murders of prostitutes in Storyville and he wants St. Cyr to prove it. Despite the (circumstantial) evidence, Valentin can't believe his friend has killed these women, leaving a memorial black rose at each crime scene, and he leaves Anderson's employ to uncover the truth.

Fulmer's novel is a thoroughly researched, genuinely suspenseful blend of fact and fiction (many of the novel's characters are real people), that brings the dankness, sweat, and late-night shenanigans of the time and place evocatively to life. Dion Graham does this as well, of course. Upon listening, I realized that I've never heard him read a non-first-person audiobook, so his neutral narration of the third-person passages here was initially disturbing. Where was the warmth, the sincerity that I've loved so much about his work? But as the narrative unfolded, I understood what was going on. Graham saves his energy for the characters, and the characters here are up to his usual standard.

There are no generic N'Awlins drawls amongst these characters -- education, social standing and race are all heard in the voices of the drunken, edgy Bolden, the commanding Anderson, the corrupt sergeant Picot, a sympathetic Irish cop, and an elderly white priest. The story's women -- almost all of whom are prostitutes or madams -- sound distinct and speak with real voices. I particularly enjoy Graham's many-shaded interpretation of St. Cyr, a man with some secrets in his past, a man who internalizes pretty much all his emotions, but who shockingly, yet believeably breaks out in grief, rage and fear in several places in Fulmer's novel.

There's a wonderful interlude in the novel when St. Cyr visits a bar in search of Ferdinand La Menthe's voodoo-practicing mother (auntie? grandmother?) for some advice. La Menthe has recently adopted the nom de jazz Jelly Roll Morton and he entertains St. Cyr (and us) with a performance of "Windin' Man" (winding like twirling). At least I think the song was called "Windin' Man" (I can't locate it online), a raunchy little ditty about a man with ... shall we say, endurance. Dion Graham sings this song's many verses with a sophisticated exhaustion and risque wink, and I can still hear it nearly two weeks later. Dion Graham. He acts, he reads, he sings! But can he dance?

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