Unsolved mysteries, murderers on the loose, and the seamy side of the big city: It’s a juicy recipe for a story. Both of these books — one about turn-of-the-century New Orleans and its epic battle against vice, the other a potboiler about Hollywood in the Roaring Twenties — deploy the formula in radically different ways, but each offers similar pleasures of clues being teased out, a ton of lurid color and character, and narratives that will keep you guessing until the end.
Gary Krist’s “Empire of Sin: A Story of Sex, Jazz, Murder, and the Battle for Modern New Orleans’’ is a restrained, well-researched account of “an all-out civil war” that pitted the city’s reform-minded elites the against the booze and sex trades, as well as the city’s Italian and black residents who got caught up in the crossfire. It was an ugly 30-year dispute with few winners, one that coincided with the rise of jazz — we meet, among other musicians, Buddy Bolden, who pioneered the form, and a young Louis Armstrong — and the oppressive reign of Jim Crow restrictions.
Krist covers all this and more; he perhaps takes on too many narrative strands — an ax-wielding mad man is also on the prowl — but his account is vivid and thoughtful. New Orleans is today known for its rich musical heritage and relaxed attitudes, but it was these very qualities that worried reformers. In 1898, hoping to contain and regulate the flourishing market in carnal pleasures, they established a district near the French Quarter, known as Storyville (for Alderman Sidney Story who crafted the plan), where brothels, saloons, and music halls were allowed to operate freely.
Business boomed — some 1,500 prostitutes catered to every taste and proclivity. The district’s unofficial mayor was the dapper Tom Anderson, who had his fingers all over Storyville business. the madames, including the flamboyant Lulu White, “always bedecked in a formal gown, a bright red-wig, and so many diamonds that she was said to rival ‘the lights of the St. Louis Exposition,’ ” also flourished. White was a woman of color, most likely born on a plantation; here, sexual contact and cash passed freely across the color line. Early Storyville, Krist writes, was “arguably the most racially integrated square mile in the entire American South.”
But outside the district, blacks and Italians were targets for violence; Krist recounts several ugly lynchings and episodes of mob violence. An ax murderer was preying on Italian grocers; the Black Hand, a sinister Italian kidnap and extortion gang stoked even more fears. (The ax man has never convincingly been identified, and the “case remains one of the great unsolved mysteries in the serial-killer literature.”) Crime in Storyville convinced reformers their experiment had gotten out of control, and by 1917, the district was slated for closing. But the pursuit of vice just migrated elsewhere.
Concerns over wicked behavior was not restricted to New Orleans. The rise of new entertainments after World War I provoked anxieties throughout the land. Civic groups put the movies, where flesh flickered across the screen nightly, firmly in their sites. In “Tinseltown,’’ William J. Mann recounts a tumultuous period in Hollywood’s silent-film era, when titan Adolph Zukor moved to consolidate his grip on every aspect of the industry with his fabulously profitable Famous Players — Lasky studio (a.k.a. Paramount). Zukor’s monopolistic ambitions provoked the attention of the Federal Trade Commission, which moved against him.
Zukor’s headaches were compounded by an endless series of scandals that brought down the wrath of social crusaders and muckraking newspapers. The seamy side of Hollywood — drug and sex parties — made too many headlines, and none more infamous than the exploits of screen sensation Fatty Arbuckle, who stood accused of rape and murder.
The killing of star director William Desmond Taylor forms the centerpiece of Mann’s melodramatic account. Found dead in his house with a single gunshot wound, Taylor’s 1922 slaying set tongues wagging and has remained unsolved. But Mann thinks he’s figured it out.
Written in a knowing, overblown style — women are invariably “dames”, and bad guys “goons” — the tawdry action that plays out on the pages of Tinseltown is as exaggerated and maudlin as the gestures of a silent film. Its 71 chapters come at you like staccato bursts. Mann doesn’t give two figs about scholarly restraint, though he assures us that “[n]othing has been created for the sake of enhancing the drama.” Readers can be the judge of that, but fair to say that Mann exploits his material for all its worth in a prose style that’s permanently set on a high boil.
The plot turns curiouser and curiouser as Mann relates the lives of “the desperate dames” whose connection to Taylor may or may not link them to the murder. There’s Mabel Normand, a star comic actress with a drug problem. Also in the mix was Margaret “Gibby” Gibson, who once acted with Taylor. Then there was young ingénue Mary Miles Minter, who was hopelessly in love with the much older (and homosexual) director. Minter’s mother, Charlotte Shelby, demanded her daughter break off her pursuit. So who dunnit? Mann’s solution is cleverly deduced — and pretty convincing.
EMPIRE OF SIN: A Story of Sex, Jazz, Murder, and the Battle for Modern New Orleans
By Gary Krist
Crown, 432 pp, $26
TINSELTOWN: Murder, Morphine, and Madness at the Dawn of Hollywood
By William J. Mann
Harper, 480 pp, $27.99
Matthew Price is a regular contributor to the Globe. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.