New Orleans crime fiction draws on crime fact, especially one incident in the shocking history of homophobia

02 May

As I read Greg Herren’s Murder in the Rue Chartres (Alyson 2007) I couldn’t help thinking the central incident, the actual murder, had a ring of truth to it, though the book’s account of who did it and why is clearly fiction. I was right.

Although New Orleans had long been home to a large gay population, it was slower than most other American cities to produce a gay political movement. Partly this was due to being a rather small, conservative city dominated by the Roman Catholic Church.

But there was another factor that had a chilling effect on gay visibility. For New York, 1969 was the year of the Stonewall riots. For New Orleans, 1969 was the year District Attorney Jim Garrison brought prominent gay businessman Clay Shaw to trial, charging him with conspiring to assassinate President John F. Kennedy. Shaw was perceived as a particularly vulnerable target because of his homosexuality.

Although Shaw was eventually acquitted of all charges, the experience destroyed his life. The targeting of Shaw had the effect of reminding gay and lesbian citizens of their vulnerability even in a place as famous for its live-and-let-live attitude as New Orleans.

Local gay political activism nevertheless emerged in 1970 with the short-lived Gay Liberation Front of New Orleans…

Tragedy and Protest

Two years after the Gay Liberation Front came and went, very little visible community structure was in place when, on June 24, 1973, a fire engulfed the Upstairs Lounge, a French Quarter gay bar. The deadliest fire in the city’s long history, it killed 32 people.

The horror of the Upstairs fire was compounded by the undisguised  homophobia of the time. Some churches refused to allow funerals for the victims, and some parents refused to claim the bodies of their children for burial.

The tragedy, however, did motivate a handful of activists who launched another publication, Causeway, and established a Gay Crisis Phone Line.

But gay activism in New Orleans did not mobilize substantial numbers until June 1977, when Anita Bryant arrived to perform in concert…

That fire is accurately described in the novel.

Murder in the Rue Chartres is something of a hymn to New Orleans, and a testament to those who lived through, or failed to live through, Hurricane Katrina. You get a very strong sense of what it was like in those months after that catastrophe. The novel is well worth reading for that alone.

Turns out too that Greg Herren is a very active and excellent blogger:


Queer · and · Loathing · in · America

or Dealing with the Stupids


I enjoyed this novel, even if I can’t but agree with the author himself:

…I like the way the book is going for me, and I am enjoying doing the work. I am trying to remember the last time I enjoyed writing, and it’s been a very long time–Jackson Square Jazz, maybe. It is also very challenging to write this book; on many different levels. What is Chanse’s verdict on how the recovery is going? How much has he healed? What is going to happen with him next? Am I making him too stupid? LOL. And how has he changed, adapted, grown up since the close of the last book? Has he at all?

It’s the characters in my books and stories that I love; even the reprehensible ones. I always try to make them seem real, or as real as possible. I don’t know how much or how often I succeed, but I know there have been times that I have succeeded, and that’s nice to know. And sue me, but it’s nice when people respond to characters you’ve created. It’s nice when people love your characters. Then you know you succeeded with what you set out to do, which was create real people that would live in the minds of your readers and in their imaginations.

I have often said that my biggest weakness as a writer is plot. I suck at plot. I always struggle with it, never feel completely comfortable with it, and even after the book is in print I go back and second-guess myself. Oh, I should have done this or had this person do that, then this would have made SO much more sense. My books are generally made up of about half plot and the other half is the life of my character and the setting. I like the personal stories of my characters in the books; I like to write about who they are, and why they are who they are…

He’s a bit hard on himself there, but it is true that spirit of place and character — and politics — were the strengths of Murder in the Rue Chartres; I felt the denouement a touch perfunctory.

But don’t get me wrong. There is much to love in this novel. And do visit the blog!

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Posted by on May 2, 2008 in blogging, book reviews, Crime and/or crime fiction, Gay and Lesbian, gay issues, other blogs, reading, Top read, USA



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