Excerpt from Empire of Sin by Gary Krist, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Empire of Sin

A Story of Sex, Jazz, Murder, and the Battle for Modern New Orleans

by Gary Krist

Empire of Sin by Gary Krist X
Empire of Sin by Gary Krist
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  • First Published:
    Oct 2014, 432 pages
    Jun 2015, 432 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Rory L. Aronsky
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Print Excerpt

Empire of Sin

It was, in many respects, the most brutal assault so far: a two-year-old child killed instantly by a single blow to the skull; her critically injured parents rendered senseless by multiple head traumas. Clotted gore soaked the bed where they all lay. Across the walls and curtains around them, blood spatters radiated like birdshot. And yet, despite this evidence of what must have been a savage frenzy of violence, no one in the neighborhood had heard a thing. The perpetrator had been able to escape without a single witness to the crime, and with hours to spare before his deed was detected. The axman was apparently becoming even more adept at his trade with time.

The crime had been discovered at about seven o'clock on a Sunday morning. Several neighbors had made earlier visits to the grocery, which usually opened at five a.m., and had merely walked away when they found it closed. But one little girl named Hazel Johnson was more persistent. After getting no response at the front door, she decided to try around back. In the alley leading to the rear of the building, she found a chair set up below a side window. She climbed up on the chair and peered inside, but couldn't see anything in the murky morning light. So she continued down the alley to the backyard. There she found the back door closed, but with one of its lower panels missing. Puzzled, she called a passerby into the yard, and he persuaded her to go inside, perhaps because she was small enough to fit through the missing panel. She crawled in—and moments later burst out the back door, screaming.

Aroused by this clamor, a young neighbor named Frank Jordano ran over with his aging father, Iorlando. They found Charles Cortimiglia half-conscious on the floor, and Rose Cortimiglia clutching her lifeless toddler and sobbing inarticulately. Her husband, Charles, roused out of his stupor by the younger Jordano, sat up on the floor. "Frank," he said. "I'm dying. Go for my brother-in-law." It was the last thing he would say for several days.

Since the town of Gretna was in Lafayette Parish, Peter Leson, chief of the Gretna police, and Lafayette sheriff Louis Marrero would conduct the investigation of the Cortimiglia case, with Superintendent Mooney's force merely assisting from afar. What Leson and Marrero found at the scene, however, indicated that the crime was clearly related to the previous year's cases across the river. The axman's signature modus operandi was obvious—from chiseled door panel to rummaged belongings, with little sign of anything of value actually being taken. This time, a box containing money and jewelry was found undisturbed in the bedroom, along with $129 in cash hidden under the Cortimiglias' mattress. But two trunks and a dresser had been practically torn apart in some kind of frenzied search; even the face of the mantelpiece clock had been pried open and examined. As in the other axman cases, however, no fingerprints were found anywhere, and any footprints in the yard had unfortunately been trampled by the curious crowd of neighbors that had gathered at the scene after hearing Hazel Johnson's screams.

The discovery of two axes on the premises—one bloody and obviously the murder weapon, another covered with fresh mud—led Leson to believe that two men might have been responsible for this attack. Perhaps one had stood on the chair in the alley to keep an eye on the victims—and simultaneously on the street—while his partner worked on the back-door panel to gain entrance. This two-perpetrator idea could even illuminate one nagging aspect of the earlier attacks. Having an accomplice could explain how the axman was so successful at eluding detection, even while chiseling away at a back door—an activity that must have been noisy enough to be heard by anyone lying awake in bed or passing on the street. In other words, the axman may not have had wings (as the impressionable Bruno girl had speculated), but he could have had a second set of eyes—keeping a lookout while he performed his grim duties inside.

Excerpted from Empire of Sin by Gary Krist. Copyright © 2014 by Gary Krist. Excerpted by permission of Crown, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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