In the wee hours of a crisp winter morning in 1920’s Atlanta, Little Jesse Williams is shuffling along Decatur Street when there is a scuffle, then a gunshot. Little Jesse is left in a heap on the ground. A man comes reluctantly to his rescue, as does blind musician Willie McTell, but the witness quickly retreats when Joe Rose appears on the scene.
A notorious rounder like Jesse, Rose is newly in town, partly to flee from the scene of his last heist and partly to reconnect with the woman he can’t forget, the beautiful Pearl Spencer. Delivering Little Jesse to his shabby rooms with the aid of the blind musician, Joe realizes that the wounded man will suffer an agonizing death; Little Jesse’s ladies and other denizens of the criminal world gather around the bed to await the end.
Even in his pain, Little Jesse is coherent enough to task Rose with tracking down his killer: a drunken policeman named J.R. Logue. Rose agrees although he feels Jesse is holding back vital information, and sets out to locate the bad cop. Meanwhile, Willie McTell remains by Little Jesse’s side, composing a ballad to celebrate his life: “The Dying Crapshooter’s Blues.”
Rose learns that a daring robbery occurred the same night as the shooting, a jewel theft on the very premises of a society gala, the Annual Charity Christmas Party at the Payne Mansion. In the business himself, this event is the cause of some dismay, Rose concerned that he may be a person of interest, equally suspicious that his dear Pearl may be somehow involved, especially since she was working at the mansion that night.
Like a black widow spider, “the Captain” Grayton Jackson, directs the investigation from the confines of his office, still obsessed about being passed over for promotion and generally in a mean mood. Intent on solving the robbery, he doesn’t take kindly to Rose’s interference, even though Joe still has some contacts from his short stint as a police officer and Pinkerton before falling into the life of crime that he prefers.
The bodies begin to fall, clouding the investigation and erasing the possibility of any witnesses. When Joe, Pearl Spencer, and her brother, Sweet Spencer, are arrested, accused of collusion in the robbery, Rose knows they are the Chief’s target. In any case, Rose can’t quit Pearl, even though her brother has warned him off in no uncertain terms.
Despite police interference, Joe manages to string together the facts of a devious plot, the tale played out against the rollicking jazz and soulful blues reminiscent of Fulmer’s Valentin St. Cyr novels. A heady brew of crime and punishment on Prohibition Atlanta, the novel features an eccentric cast of colorful characters: Little Jesse Williams and his ladies-of-the-night, the blind musician, the riotous speak-easies, the exotic Pearl, and the hard-nosed Chief of Detectives.
Once more, Fulmer brings an era vividly to life, the sweet notes of The Dying Crapshooter’s Blues sliding through the night.