The thing that stuck me forcefully after finishing John Dickson Carr’s Papa La-Bas was how politically incorrect it was: Black people are frequently sold, they are lost or won in games of poker; Women of mixed race are taken up as unacknowledged wives by the highest bidding White man; Men are free to spank their betrotheds if the latter don’t behave themselves, and the author’s comment (through one of his protagonists) on all this is a laconic, “The situation exists and must be faced; let’s have no moralizing or cant!” (47). Seriously, Carr presents mid-nineteenth century New Orleans in all its facets, warts and all. And I feel Carr must have been an extremely brave man to have published the book in 1968 when the US erupted in race riots with Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination.
Richard Macrae, Her Brittanic Majesty’s Consul in New Orleans, is a worried man. For some days past, he has had a feeling that some malignant force is pursuing him:
Confound this sensation of being so constantly followed and being spied on, in particular at night, by some alien or malignant watcher: almost always present, lurking just beyond eyeshot, yet never there when you wheeled round in challenge!…. Usually felt outdoors, though once or twice even at home, this presence seemed to skulk at his heels or peer from doorways, close enough to reach out and touch. (5)
Could these feelings be associated with a brief encounter with a woman he had at around the same time?
the girl in the mask with lace edges. He must shut away even the thought of tawny-haired charmer, who belonged only to dreams. (10)
As he is musing on his personal troubles, he is visited by Isabelle de Sancerre, wife of his friend, Jules de Saccerre. Isabelle is worried about her daughter Margot who is engaged to be married to Macrae’s friend Tom Clayton. After a lot of meandering conversation that keeps on being interrupted by other people who drop in or objects being thrown about, Isabelle reveals that what worries her about Margot is that she has been asking questions about (real life historical figures) Delphine Lalaurie and Marie Laveau. [Please see this brilliant review @ The Green Capsule for the effect on a reader about this revelation]. In fact, that is a mystery I haven’t been able to solve even after finishing the novel: why did Isabelle come to Macrae in the first place because the man till then had not even met Margot, how could he have helped in any case?
But anyway the novel moves forward, trying to solve Margot’s interest in these two women and things start happening: new arrivals, quadroon balls, young ladies masked and unmasked, anonymous threatening messages, duels, hats being destroyed, murder, disappearances from carriages, voodoo rites…and interruptions and still more interruptions and yet more interruptions!!
And then there is the romance between Macrae and that tawny haired charmer! God help us all!!!
If all this makes it appear that I didn’t like the book, it is not so. I learnt so many things about which I had little or no idea: the Louisiana Purchase, the Creole culture, quadroon balls and I liked New Orleans with its gaslit streets, carriages, and the disquiet because of the looming conflict. So good for a one-time read, even if the racial and sexual politics are very skewed.
And what or rather who is Papa La-Bas? Well I am not going to spoil that for you.😉
Have you read it? What did you think?
First Line: He had been conscious of disquiet for many days before anything really happened.
Publishing Details: NY: Harper & Row, 1968
First Published: 1968
Source: Open Library
Other books read of the same author: (Among others) The Black Spectacles; The Burning Court; Crooked Hinge; Eight of Swords; Hag’s Nook; He Who Whispers; Patrick Butler for the Defence; The Third Bullet and Other Stories.