|The Mysteries of New Orleans|
|(Die Geheimnisse von New Orleans)|
|Baron Ludwig von Reizenstein|
|Steven Rowan (translator)|
|John Hopkins University Press, 559 pages|
|A review by Georges T. Dodds
I must say that I'd never very much considered what if any German-American literature and journalism existed, at least prior to Hanns Heinz Ewers's infamous Vampir, which American authorities wished to suppress in the early 1900s. Lo and behold, there were a great number of German-American urban mysteries, of which three have been deemed worthy of English translations, those set in St. Louis, Cincinnati, and New Orleans. The latter, Baron von Reizenstein's Mysteries of New Orleans, suppressed, renounced by its author exists in only one complete copy. It took editor/translator Steven Rowan some 10-odd years to find the full text and translate it. He also present an extensive and lucid introduction detailing what is know of von Reizenstein's life and the sociopolitical context of the novel.
Was it all worth it? From a historical and cultural perspective it definitely is. The most interesting portions of the book are those of everyday life in 1850s New Orleans. An episode about street children going across town to glean stray coffee beans from a warehouse is particularly well done. Such peripheral-to-the-plot scenes, set in New Orleans, obviously drawn from personal experience, are the best moments in the book. The plotting, however, is rather a disjointed hodge-podge of narrative non-sequiturs, flashbacks, and loose ends. Not that the likes of Sue and Féval didn't have their share of these, but all and all The Mysteries of New Orleans is poorly written, even by the standards of its time. Don't get me wrong, it's plenty fun to read, has plenty of scandal, sex, murder and mayhem, dastardly villains, a superhuman 200-year old sorcerer-revolutionary, and decadence to spare, but the author was no Tieck or Hoffman.
What's it about? Partly about Hiram the Freemason, a powerful (in the occult sense) man, steeped in ancient wisdom, come to take revenge upon the South for slavery, bringing the yellow fever with him to prepare the way for a black messiah. Also in the mix, an amoral arsonist-murderer-psychopath named Lajos, the criminal underworld of New Orleans, a family of German emigrés quickly falling into poverty and despair, a pair of young women in a lesbian romance. Told in a rather matter of fact, reportorial style, this all lends a gathering sense of gloom to the proceedings. Still, the end of the novel is somewhat unsatisfactory, Lajos the brutal murderer is led off and executed fairly painlessly by the power of moonlight, courtesy of Hiram, who apparently sometime thereafter dies, leaving a black emperor to rule in Haiti. The city has forgotten all about the fever and Hiram, and the author leaves us with the warning "Ruin awaits him who does not take heed!"
Certainly I recommend the book to anyone with an interest in the pre-Civil War American South, in particular that of New Orleans, those who enjoy 19th century urban mysteries, or those of you entranced by tabloid gossip columns wishing to experience the 1850s equivalent, but for the modern horror or crime reader The Mysteries of New Orleans may be, notwithstanding its cover, a bit of a letdown after Janet Jackson.
Georges Dodds is a research scientist in vegetable crop physiology, who for close to 25 years has read and collected close to 2000 titles of predominantly pre-1950 science-fiction and fantasy, both in English and French. He writes columns on early imaginative literature for WARP, the newsletter/fanzine of the Montreal Science Fiction and Fantasy Association and maintains a site reflecting his tastes in imaginative literature.
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