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Introduction to the Point Blank edition of New Orleans Confidential by O'Neil De Noux


What we do as writers, paradoxically, is attempt at one and the same time to summon up the whole of experience, to limn the world at full tilt, and to render some small portion of this world with such specificity that, walking past, the reader feels the grit of it catching in the soles of shoes. It's impossible, of course; we know that. Just as it is impossible to make characters come alive on the page with only pale ghosts of words as tools. But we plod on, one eye crossed to the tip of our nose, other aimed to the stars, meanwhile falling, like Aristophanes's caricature of Socrates, into every pothole. And while it's true that we may be smarter when actually writing than at any other time, that's not saying a lot. We don't know any more of the world, its people and its ways than you do. We're just better at making up lies.

O'Neil De Noux tells marvelous, compelling lies adrench with the presence and personality of a very particular place. Even in the work he sets in contemporary time, there's a strong feel for the history of this unique, ever- surprising city; in New Orleans Confidential, with stories set in the late Forties, that sense of history becomes paramount.

When we moved to New Orleans some years back, Karyn looked up one day to say, "We've left the United States behind." I realized in a flash how right she was. We were on an island that had floated free of the mainland, a fourth- world republic that, having been released on its own cognizance, kept to an intensely personal pace and style and remained, through all its massive changes — of colonization, ownership, character, upsurge and decay — oddly changeless. I have lived there five times. The accents shift, sounds get slurred or clipped, but the city still speaks the same language it did when I was seventeen.

So: New Orleans, forever a fascinating place, and the Forties, a particularly fascinating time. America had begun in the past decade to transform itself from a rural to an urban society. During the war years, vast population shifts occurred as men departed for training camps and civilians moved to industrial-defense centers like Los Angeles, Baltimore and Chicago. Guys were coming back from the war with their first intimations of how huge and unmanageable the world might be — coming back to the northeast with a taste for hillbilly music learned from barracks mates, coming back to the hills and hollows of Virginia with the sound of swing in their heads. Driven by war-generated prosperity, bolstered by newspapers, movies and radio, the great homogenization had begun.

It's no mere circumstance that the American detective novel developed simultaneously with this transformation from rural to urban. Writers such as the Black Mask group, Hammett and Chandler — interestingly enough, those who relocated America's eternal frontier myth in the person of the detective — were the first to look closely at our cities: how we made them, and what they are making us. Crime fiction remains the urban fiction.

O'Neil De Noux pays homage here to that time of transition, and to those early, seminal stories. This is a bit like playing baroque music on period instruments, or re-creating the sound of Forties Hawaiian ensembles. Never mind the awesome skill it takes, or the difficulties encountered: one does it from sheer love. No other city so enshrines the contradictions upon which our society is based as does New Orleans. The city is a stew of French, Spanish, Caribbean, Creole, Indian, African-American, Irish — and yet oddly, purely American. Proud of its rich intellectual heritage, it is vibrantly sensual, a place of strong appetites and strange appeasements. Great wealth and astonishing poverty exist side by side; driving to the opera, you pass through some of the city's worst areas, which for blocks at the time resemble bombed-out rubble. One can still stand and look across the river to Algiers, from whose pens slaves were brought to be sold on French Quarter auction blocks. When Karyn and I lived there, the city had become the nation's murder capital, averaging a homicide a day. Yet it was, and remains, the easiest, friendliest city we'd ever known. In many ways it feels like a small town circa 1950. I admire O'Neil's work tremendously. No one writes New Orleans as well as he does. No one else ever gets the mix just right, the grime and glory, the shine and shame — as he, to all appearances effortlessly, does. André Gide once likened the detective's search for truth to a man hunting out a black hat in a pitch black room. As writers, we're the same. O'Neil finds that damned hat every time. Then he slaps it on his head and goes walking jauntily down Esplanade. If we're much of anything as writers, we are witnesses. It's our job to save the reader from dailyness, from all the assumptions and inattentions that weigh us down, to say: This is how the world looks, this is what it seems to be. O'Neil De Noux takes that job seriously. He is a great witness and a fine writer. He can help us save ourselves.

James Sallis, Phoenix 2005

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