Monday, December 15, 2014

Book Review: "Empire of Sin: A Story of Sex, Jazz, Murder and the Battle for Modern New Orleans" by Gary Krist

"I doubt if there is a city in the world where the resident population has been so divided in its origin, where this is such a variety in the tastes, habits, manners and moral codes of it's citizens" -Fredrick Law Oldmsted.

(He has nothing to do with the book but I love Fredrick Law Olmsted. That is one interesting life! Here's the wiki page for him in case you have the curious!)

I love history and architecture, but New Orleans never has appealed to me. Which is weird, because history and architecture and cemeteries are all things I love. Maybe I will come around to it, but I feel like I already know so much about the city from this super interesting book!

The book focuses on New Orleans between the years of 1890-1920, especially in the areas that the title has already told you: sex, jazz, murder, and really control of the city. (Though to be fair the sex part of the title could have probably been "vice". Even though there's a lot of talk about brothels there's also talk about booze and gambling. Though they mostly happened in the brothels, so touche.)

Sex (and/or vice) were a big part of the scene in the Storyville section of New Orleans, where all the fun/seedy stuff went on. There were brothels that catered to all tastes and desires and to all different types of people ("black, white, jew, interracial"). There was of course people (like Carrie Nation) who wanted to reform New Orleans and make it a respectable place. There were mixed results (there's the "battle for modern New Orleans.)

This book taught me more about jazz than I ever knew before, I feel like a regular Lisa Simpson! It highlights many famous jazz musicians, including Louis Armstrong. He was the first/most famous musician who brought jazz into mainstream America. Whenever I was reading a section about him I kept singing his part of "Hello Dolly" in my head. ("Hello, Dolly...this is Louis....Dolly, it's so nice to have you back where you...beloooooong". Haha!) They also talk about "Jelly Roll" Morton who got so rich playing jazz that he had a diamond implanted on his front tooth. In the early 1900s. Newsflash to modern rappers: swag and grills were not your idea.

They talked about some super gruesome murders in this book. I will give you a math equation to show you: Sleeping victims + several axe chops to the face  = gruesome murders with lots of blood on the ceilings.  I remember seeing something about this on some show about hauntings on the history channel. Here's some more information about it. Also most of these (multiple) murders go unsolved. Sleep tight lovelies! 

Random/favorite observances:

- "New Orleans was the first American Metropolis to build an opera house, but the last to build a sewerage system". Priorities fail. I mean I'm all about the fine arts but I'm way more about flushing toilets and not having cholera.

- The Italians were really really not popular with a lot of people in the city. Learned lots of ethnic Italian slurs from some of the quotes! Eek!

-New Orleans seemed to be doing okay as a pretty integrated city but then there were a lot of Jim Crow laws enacted that really set the city back from where it had been.

This book was great! I try not to compare every really interesting book to an Erik Larson (it's a compliment those books are great) but they are similar! Highly recommended if you love: jazz, history, true crime, mob stories and so much more! I give it 4 out of 5 stars!

I recieved this book for free in exchange for an honest review from Blogging for Books


  1. Good to see your review. I've been wondering about it. I'll give it a try.

  2. I love that time period!! I love everything jazz, murder and mob related! Especially if it has some Italian in the mix. It reminds me of Chicago, the musical, which I love. I will definitely give this book a try, because it seems like the perfect combination of things. Thank you for the recommendation.

    1. This book sounds made for you! It was definitely "Chicago"esque!

  3. I think I have this one somewhere. Sounds like I need to dig it out.

  4. I was interested in this book before, but you totally sold me! I get what you mean about the Erik Larson comparisons, but sometimes he's the easiest to go to for that sense of engaging narrative nonfiction.

    1. Woohoo!
      Erik Larson is just so damn good, but it's nice to see other people doing almost as equally riveting work!

  5. I am INTRIGUED by this book review! *adding it to my TBR*


Thank you so much for your comment. I'd love to talk books with you!