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The gambler's song 

David Fulmer sings The Dying Crapshooter's Blues

Happy New Year! Welcome to ... well, sometime in the 1920s, in Atlanta -- as recreated in Atlanta author David Fulmer's The Dying Crapshooter's Blues. The social event of the holiday season took place on New Year's Eve, as always, at the Payne mansion in Inman Park -- decades before it got white-flighted, then gentrified -- with all the well-to-do showing off their chauffeured fancy cars and rubbing elbows with the mayor they'd elected to clean up the corrupt police force.

It was a lovely party until, good gracious, the Paynes discovered that during the party someone had stolen many of the family jewels. Later that same night, in the red-light district along Central Avenue, a drunk white police officer shoots Little Jesse Williams, a black gambler and womanizer who had paid all his graft and, as far as anyone can figure, had done nothing to provoke or threaten the officer. Jesse is left to die in the street. But then along comes help from Willie McTell, a blind blues guitarist, and Joe Rose, a jewelry thief who has just rolled back into town. They get Jesse a doctor who can give him some comfort but can't save his life, then Willie holds vigil at his death bed, composing "The Dying Crapshooter's Blues" for the funeral they all know is coming.

So if I told you that the police were putting all their resources behind solving one of these crimes and completely ignoring the other, would you guess they were interested in the rich white people who lost their baubles or the black man slowly dying from a police-inflicted gunshot wound? Enter Capt. Grayton Jackson, a Ku Klux Klan member in good standing and known for getting results, even if it means he has to slap around a whore or lie through the rigor smile of his teeth. Welcome to justice, Atlanta style. Joe Rose, once briefly a cop himself, knows that Jackson will pin the jewelry theft on him and completely ignore Jesse's murder, unless Joe can solve both mysteries himself.

Like Valentin St. Cyr in Fulmer's Storyville mysteries set in New Orleans, Rose is a man of uncertain, maybe mixed racial background. His skin is copper -- some think he's "Indian," some say Mediterranean. Rose, an orphan, doesn't know, but his identity as a neither/nor lets him move in both worlds of segregated Atlanta, the city that was supposedly too busy to hate until it found itself some time during the race riots of 1906.

It's a debauched, dirty, electric Atlanta into which Fulmer has written his story.

"One of the reasons that I wanted to do this book," Fulmer says, "was that Atlanta doesn't embrace its history as much as a lot of other cities do. ... Especially this sort of second, hidden history of the corruption and the wild side of life ... and the music, the fact that it was a music capital.

"You never hear too much about that."

As with the Storyville mysteries, Fulmer enters his times and places through music, and in this book the music is the blues. "People from all over the South would come to Atlanta," he says. If you wanted to record music at this time, "there were three places to go: Chicago, New York and Atlanta. And [Atlanta] drew from all over the South and also down from the hills. Bessie Smith recorded here and Ma Rainey. And the first blues record was Mamie Smith and her Jazz Hounds' 'Crazy Blues.' It was made in Atlanta."

As Jesse approaches death, with Joe Rose still struggling to tease apart the tangled web, Jesse takes great comfort from knowing he'll be immortalized in Willie's song. He's suffering and soon he'll be dead and gone, but happy -- healthy gamblers don't get sung about in the blues.

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