Claude Marchand arrives in New Orleans in 1838 after a convoluted journey begun in Paris where, as an apprentice, he trashed the studio of L.J.M. Daguerre, stealing the materials for producing realistic photographic images, later known as daguerreotypes.
Besides the stolen equipment, Claude has also stolen another's name, a man who died in his company on the journey. For this photographer's apprentice, New Orleans is a mini-Paris with artistic pretensions and an aura of social decadence much to his liking. Immediately, Marchand takes up residence with Millicent, the paramour of his first friend in New Orleans, an artist. Millicent is a beautiful octoroon who favors casting spells on ex-lovers, accepting her station in society an occasional flash of rage.
Millicent hawks Claude's "magic" pictures to the wealthy citizens of the city and they stand in line, eager to purchase their "soliotypes". There are no negatives in this early process, each unique image adding to the popularity of Marchand's artistry. But by the summer, Yellow Fever has made its yearly appearance in New Orleans, decimating the poor who remain while the rich flee to the country. Suddenly finding himself without clients, Claude initiates a career of memorial images, deceased victims brought to the studio in their coffins.
Claude is hopelessly in love. The object of his affections is the forbidden daughter of a wealthy, indulgent father, the twelve-year old-Vivian Marmu. Much as he fights his carnal inclination to feast on her innocence, Vivian's seduces Marchand with her beauty and purity. When she is sixteen, Vivian offers herself in stages, binding her lover in heart and spirit.
Both women play an erotic cat-and-mouse game with Claude, although Millicent's charms pale in comparison to Vivian's untouched vulnerability. Duality is characteristic of Marchand; he participates mindlessly, in love with Vivian but helpless to deny Millicent‘s allure. By then his brain has been affected by the quicksilver fumes used on the plates, the chemicals seeping into his system and affecting his mental stability.
Marchand walks a narrow ledge of respectability, where perversion is de rigueur and the yearly sickness sends frightened citizens into paroxysms of decadence. Although the city is reeling from the seasonal onslaught of the fever in 1845, the mayor and his lackeys refuse to acknowledge any danger to the citizens. Claude's images serve as a testament to the thousands felled, forcing the city to respond, but his artistic cachet is purchased at an exorbitant price.
Yellow Jack is a miasma of carnal pursuits born of Yellow Fever, lovers’ obsessions and careless affairs, a heady mix of opium and the deadly chemicals that warp Marchand’s mind and shorten his life. Russell’s New Orleans is historically accurate, the characters as impulsive and self-indulgent as their fortunes allow, contrasted with the helpless agony of those doomed by death’s toll.