Madam: A Novel of New Orleans

In the 1890s and 1900s the city of New Orleans instituted boundaries for a place where there would be legalized prostitution and all the vices that go with it. Nicknamed Storyville, a reference to the man who proposed the idea, it became a notorious few blocks serving both Blacks and Whites as a prurient playground for lust. Its most remembered contribution to history was as a musical incubator where ragtime pianists and early jazz innovators like Jelly Roll Morton, King Oliver, and Louis Armstrong set the beginnings of Jazz. Contrary to the popular myth that Jazz began in Storyville, its real importance was how the musicians of Storyville spread the music throughout the country due to the large amount of sailors and other travelers who heard it in the whorehouses.

Madam is a fictional account loosely based on Mary Deubler who later became one of the leading madams under the name of Josie Arlington. It starts with Mary's low stature as a prostitute in a "crib", one of the lower settings of her trade, to the emergence of Storyville and her rapid ride to the role of Madam. In between we are given a few feuds and murders, a look at New Orleans style voodoo and other corrupt and decadent events. Authors Kari Lynn and Kellie Martin employ a number of historical characters in this novel including pianist Morton, photographer E. J. Bellocq and others. The authors attempt to evoke a feel for the era while telling a personal story of a woman at the bottom working her way up in the only way she was allowed.

But does it work? This is where I had some problems. The style of writing seems rather light and melodramatic for such a often bleak historical tale. I never really got a good grasp on who Mary was except that we should have sympathy for her plight and admire her gumption. None of the other characters really stood out and the historical "cameos" didn't really add much. Storyville never came alive for me partly because the novel ended at the first days of the district. The first task of a historical novel is make the era sound authentic and this never happened. Instead we get a soap operatic telling of a often told story that felt like the treatment for a TV mini-series.

Overall, despite my enthusiasm for that period of history and the important role it played in American music, the novel fell flat. It is a mildly entertaining novel that fails to give us anything new and inspiring. This book will appeal to those who like hard luck tales and "poor girl fight to the top" stories. But as an historical novel that gives you insight on the times and human nature, I just can't recommend it.