20 greatest works of fiction about New Orleans

9 of 21

Twelve Bar Blues (Cover image via Penguin UK)

13. Twelve Bar Blues

Jazz music is one of those things that are indelibly associated with New Orleans. It’s referenced in nearly all of the promotional materials put out by tourism offices, whether it’s a bar or two of brassy music or even a clip art trumpet on a brochure somewhere. If you visit New Orleans, it may feel as if you are practically tripping over a jazz bar or club on every block.

Just because jazz is part of the outward-facing tourist packages doesn’t mean it can’t also be an integral part of New Orleans’ history and culture. Really, jazz in the city goes all the way back to the beginnings of the style, to the point where New Orleans is often said to be the birthplace of jazz. By the time the term “jazz” had become popular in the 1910s, it was already a well-established part of the musical culture in the city.

Jazz and literature

With such a wide array of jazz styles and a metaphorical flood of performers, an aspiring musician has to really stand out from the crowd in order to make it. At least, that’s how it feels to Lick Holden, one of the protagonists in Patrick Neate’s Twelve Bar Blues, published in 2002.

To his credit, Lick is a highly talented cornet player. However, he’s also dealing with his own significant demons, including the specters of his time in reform schools. There’s also the booming jazz scene of the early 20th-century New Orleans, which lends both great excitement and serious competition.

Then, there’s also the entrenched racism of the early 20th-century American South. Lick’s adopted sister, Sylvie, is biracial and can pass for white. She has a disastrous affair with Lick before escaping to New York City. There, Sylvie marries and pretends to be nothing more than an average white woman. When her granddaughter is born with dark skin, however, things get complicated.