Published by Crown on October 28, 2014
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Empire of Sin re-creates the remarkable story of New Orleans’ thirty-years war against itself, pitting the city’s elite “better half” against its powerful and long-entrenched underworld of vice, perversity, and crime. This early-20th-century battle centers on one man: Tom Anderson, the undisputed czar of the city's Storyville vice district, who fights desperately to keep his empire intact as it faces onslaughts from all sides. Surrounding him are the stories of flamboyant prostitutes, crusading moral reformers, dissolute jazzmen, ruthless Mafiosi, venal politicians, and one extremely violent serial killer, all battling for primacy in a wild and wicked city unlike any other in the world.
Empire of Sin focuses on New Orleans, 1890-1920. It’s a compelling look at the politics, crime, and culture of the city. The mayhem starts with the killing of Police Chief Hennessy. The acquittal of the killers ignited mob violence that just astounded me. Around the same time, the vice-district Storyville was established. This era saw the birth of jazz, music that made some of the upper class in the city nervous. Jim Crow laws were established in the city, which, until this time, had been relatively tolerant of integration. We see New Orleans during WW 1 and prohibition. A lot happened in those years and the book is filled with names I was familiar with, especially the first generations of jazzmen.
I don’t read a lot of non-fiction, but books like this make me wonder why not. The people in these pages are as fascinating, absurd, outrageous and inventive as any fictional characters. The things they do, from lynchings to shootouts to somehow keeping a niece from knowing her aunt was a madam of one of the most successful brothels in Storyville made my jaw drop. I found myself rooting for the jazz players and the madams and the bar owners, not the reformers who were trying to clean up – and segregate – the city. The writing style brings the era alive, it’s not a dry recitation of facts, although those are there. Krist makes history readable.
If the book suffers from anything it’s the broad scope. Krist seems to deal with everything happening in New Orleans during that time. Yes, it all interrelates, but I felt like it was almost two, or three, books crammed together. The politics and fight against vice was one topic, the birth of jazz another, and the axman murders that framed the book could have been left out for all I cared.
The book fizzled out a bit at the end. It’s like the time we were looking at was over and now we’re done, except for a mention of Hurricane Katrina. I don’t know if there really was a better way of ending, but it didn’t quite hold up to the rest of the book for me.
I’m glad I finally pulled this one off the shelf. Krist has taken what was already a colorful city and made it more vivid. Now, I a.) want to read more non-fiction and b.) visit New Orleans.