This is the second book of E. Denise Billups in the series about Simone Doucet, a successful travel writer.
The first ‘Tainted Harvest’ introduced Delphine, an ancestral ghost who appeared to haunt Simone. In reality Delphine showed Simone her past and persuaded her to write and publish her story. She opened Simone’s eyes to the afterlife and revealed she had a gift of second sight and could help other ancestral souls.
Some months after the encounter with Delphine, Simone is living in New York and is being troubled with noises, scents, flashes of vivid blue colour and blurry spectral images, prompting her to take her three flat mates to New Orleans for Mardi Gras. The authors description these paranormal events engages the readers full attention. A short lull in the reading follows and then the intrigue starts and develops to the point that you dare not put the book down.
Mardi Gras is a vibrant time to visit New Orleans. Outrageously costumed merrymakers with top hats decorated in purple, green and gold representing justice, faith and power, happily swarm the streets singing and dancing to the playing of brass bands. New Orleans has always been a place of mystery – a place of lively music, good food, with roots in Creole and French influences.
The vibrant red sweet fruity Hurricane drink seems innocuous but contains two types of rum and has a liberating and alcoholic effect. This signature drink was invented during World War II at Pat O’Brien’s when distilleries were repurposed making whiskey scarce. One case of whiskey required the bar to buy 50 cases of rum. A glass, shaped like a hurricane lamp was the perfect vessel and the Hurricane drink was born.
The infamous Storyville area was a red light area of 38 blocks where prostitution was tolerated and not illegal. Blue books, known as the “guidebooks to sin,” were booklets that advertised the activity of Storyville and served as a directory for the prostitutes and “madames” of the district, many of whom were categorised by race. “W” for white, “C” for coloured, and “Oct.” for octoroon, meaning one-eighth Black. Many light-skinned, mixed race, and/or Creole women worked at Lulu White’s Mahogany Hall, a luxurious parlour occupied by rich, white men. Many famous jazz players got their start in these brothels including Jelly Roll Morton, Joe “King” Oliver, Buddy Bolden. Even a young Louis Armstrong made money by bringing coal to the brothels within the district.
Piece by piece little fragments are revealed to Simone as she and and her flat mates stroll through the famed French quarter, or Vieux Carré, whose name translates to “old square”. The heart of the city was built in a sharp curve around the Mississippi River, and earned itself the name Crescent City. The ghost ‘Bleu’ reacts to certain buildings and streets and the loud whistles of the steam calliope, a steam pipe organ on the Steamboat Natchez. Bleu takes Simone through closed doors to reveal bits of her past.
The elegant Bourbon Orleans hotel where Simone stays has the reputation of being the most haunted hotel. It is the home of many a scene in Bleu’s past. It was once home to the famous Quadroon Balls, where on the wooden balcony outside, it’s said that on quiet moonlit nights, the ghosts of a young woman and her suitor can be seen standing. At these balls, free women of colour, who were one quarter African-American, attended the balls chaperoned and were introduced to wealthy French suitors, who if agreeable to the mother, would buy the daughter a house and support her for life. This custom known as a ‘placate’ was unique to New Orleans. The first born children considered themselves to be ‘Creoles of Colour’. Later on the building became a convent and school (St Mary’s Academy), and the ballroom became their chapel. There are said to be as many as 15 – 20 separate ghosts roaming the hotel and many of these are children running and playing in the rooms.
Mahogany Hall in Ms Lulu White’s mansion was quite elaborate. She was known all around the district as Queen of the Demi-Monde because of her elegance and beauty. Mahogany Hall was built of mostly marble and had about fifteen bedrooms. It was the most beautiful house in Storyville. Ms. White was known for having the most beautiful and best women around, whose names were listed in a book called the Blue Book, which was given to the visitors so that they would know what services were offered as well as what women were available at each mansion. Ms. White hosted parties in the parlours where we had men playing jazz music on the piano, one of whom was Louis Armstrong while some of the women danced naked for waiting clients.
Back to the story. Bleu has opened up to Simone and recounts happy memories helping to make pomades and learning to use enfleurage, a perfume manufacturing technique. However there are scenes of much anger and sorrow, visions of rape, murder and remorse. Just as Simone is starting to piece together these fragments there is a twist. Are there two ghosts? Images and stories of darker, angrier ghosts emerge, entangled with a love affair.
Will Simone be able to resolve these and put the troubled ghosts to rest?
The author has a talent to write descriptive and colourful text that evokes strong emotions in the reader. For example “I reach out my hand, at once retracting it when something skims my arm, sending a shiver rolling through me. I step back, halted by a phantom grip. The laundry basket drops to my feet. The scented aura encroaches upon my face, icing my skin with a frigid blast as though it blew a forceful breath intentionally.”
I urge you to pick up a copy and start reading.