For all the rich and varied literature that has come out of Louisiana, mystery and detective fiction has, for the most part, been a recent addition to the state's literary canon.
For all the rich and varied literature that has come out of Louisiana, mystery and detective fiction has, for the most part, been a recent addition to the state’s literary canon. Beginning in the late 1980s and early 1990s, however, several Louisiana mystery writers have risen to prominence, earning both popular and critical acclaim. As a result, the state and particularly the city of New Orleans have a significance in the detective genre that rivals more established locales like Los Angeles and Chicago. James Lee Burke, Julie Smith, and Chris Wiltz are in vanguard of Louisiana writers, producing mystery and crime fiction with a strong sense of place and culture. Their diverse approaches speak to the richness of Louisiana as setting for detective fiction.
For better or for worse, Louisiana is in many ways a natural fit for crime fiction. The first recorded episode of Mafia violence in America occurred in New Orleans in the late nineteenth century, so the city has clear ties to the criminal underworld essential to much American detective fiction. Further, the unfortunate and well-documented history of institutional corruption that has plagued New Orleans and Louisiana make the region a natural fit for the noirish sensibilities of many detective writers. Almost since the city’s founding, exotic brothels and picturesque depravity have fascinated writers and tourists, contributing an aura of mystery and danger that has added to New Orleans’ appeal. Until fairly recently, however, most attempts to capitalize on New Orleans’ atmosphere in crime fiction have suffered from a sense of touristy inauthenticity, presenting the city as the home of Voudou and Mardi Gras, but little else. Burke, Smith, and Wiltz penetrated this surface exoticism, writing detective fiction in which the location is as important as the characters.
James Lee Burke
James Lee Burke entered the Louisiana detective fiction scene in 1987 with the publication of The Neon Rain, the novel that introduces his hero Dave Robicheaux. A recovering alcoholic from Cajun country, Robicheaux begins the series as a New Orleans police detective, battling crime, corruption, and his own nature. The protagonist of seventeen novels to date, Robicheaux works alongside his Falstaffian partner, Cletus Purcel, and inhabits a Louisiana that is beautiful yet tragically flawed, innocent in parts yet rotten at the core. This duality can be seen in the contrast between the stately, beautiful French Quarter and the seamy, criminal underside of the housing projects. Set alternately in New Orleans and New Iberia, Burke’s Robicheaux novels also suggest a dichotomy between the pristine swamps of rural Cajun culture and the proverbial “mean streets” of city life. Reflecting the multifaceted nature of the state, Burke celebrates Louisiana’s distinctiveness and beauty without reducing its complexity. One of his most recent and admired novels, Tin Roof Blowdown, is set in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, chronicling the tragedy through Robicheaux’s eyes (the novel is one of several examples of the tragedy’s impact on the detective genre—a recent notable anthology, New Orleans Noir, is divided into pre- and post-Katrina sections). The author of twenty-six novels to date, Burke has established himself among America’s preeminent writers of detective fiction.
Julie Smith’s novels, featuring female detectives Skip Langdon and later Talba Wallis, are also inextricably rooted in New Orleans culture and atmosphere. Smith, a former reporter for the New Orleans Times-Picayune, reflects her emphasis on place in the titles of her works, beginning with the Edgar-winning New Orleans Mourning and continuing through The Axeman’s Jazz, Crescent City Kill, Jazz Funeral, and House of Blues, to list only a few examples. Smith differs from Burke in that, while her works certainly include the seamier side of New Orleans, her protagonist, Skip Langdon, comes from the New Orleans upper class and we see the city from that perspective. Educated at private schools, raised amid the rich and elaborate pageantry of Carnival krewes and the gentility of the Garden District, Langdon rebels against that world to become a police officer. Yet its influence persists through much of the series. Instead of presenting a city defined primarily by criminality, as is often the case in hard-boiled detective fiction, Smith evokes the complexity and eclecticism at the city’s heart. Her New Orleans is as much about book clubs and teas as back alleys and drug deals. Smith’s second female sleuth, Talba Wallis (the name is derived from Baroness Pontalba), was introduced in the Skip Langdon novel 82 Desire and now has her own series. An African American woman who works as a private investigator by day and a poet and performance artist by night, Talba balances her various professional endeavors, as well as the pressures and expectations of her mother, Miz Clara. Julie Smith has written twenty mystery novels, and in 2007 edited New Orleans Noir, a collection of New Orleans-based crime fiction by a variety of established and emerging writers.
Chris Wiltz is the Louisiana-born and -educated author of three detective novels featuring protagonist Neil Rafferty: The Killing Circle,A Diamond Before You Die, and The Emerald Lizard. Wiltz represents another distinctive voice in Louisiana detective fiction. Like Smith, she sheds light on the social stratification of New Orleans society. Wiltz, however, presents this society from a very different perspective. Detective Neal Rafferty is a product of the working-class Irish Channel rather than the genteel Garden District. While Rafferty has enough social status to belong to clubs and a Mardi Gras krewe, he emphatically claims his blue-collar roots, in contrast to his friend, the privileged Maurice. Wiltz’s male detective might seem like a departure for a female writer, but her style and stories are more like Burke’s often grim, ugly visions of corruption and depravity than Smith’s typically less gritty tales. Her New Orleans is rife with evils both institutional and personal; her stories are more naturalistic than romanticized. Like Dave Robicheaux, however, Rafferty regards the city with equal parts disdain and love.
Other Detective Writers
Burke, Smith, and Wiltz are hardly alone. Gilbert Morris’s Dani Ross mysteries, James Sallis’s Lew Griffin novels, and O’Neil De Noux’s detective stories have added to the mix. Laura Childs’s mysteries, which center on Carmela Bertrand, owner of a scrapbooking shop in the French Quarter, provide a unique brand of detective fiction. Robert Crais, the Louisiana-born author of the Elvis Cole detective series, brings his Los Angeles-based sleuth to southern Louisiana in the 1996 novel Voodoo River. Throughout the series, Crais has maintained a connection to the Pelican State by featuring a Louisiana native as Elvis Cole’s love interest. Louisiana and New Orleans have always presented a rich setting for mystery fiction, and the genre continues to thrive. Other notable detective writers who have set their stories in New Orleans include Barbara Hambly, David Fulmer, Robert Skinner, John William and Joyce H. Corrington, and Tony Fennelly.