Galveston, Texas – named after an 18th-century Spanish military leader, port of the one-time Texas Navy, an entry point for African slaves and European immigrants. Known as the “Queen City of the Gulf” until 1900 when a hurricane all but destroyed the entire place, one of the deadliest storms in US history. Galveston recovered and rebuilt. In 1910, The Galveston Daily News also reported that Galveston was known throughout the world as “The Oleander City”. It was also known for its speakeasies, illegal casinos and rum-runners during Prohibition. So, of course, there’s some good crime writing from and about Galveston and the Gulf Coast.
Back to that hurricane. Matt Bondurant’s Oleander City (2022), a crime story based on a supposedly true story, is set in the wake of the 1900 Galveston hurricane. A devastated city looks to rebuild. Three lives converge despite persecution from the Ku Klux Klan, a bare-knuckle boxing match gone wrong, and the recovery efforts of the American Red Cross. The fight was between veteran “Chrysanthemum Joe” Choynski, the most successful Jewish boxer in America, and Jack Johnson, a young hometown hero known as “the Galveston Giant.” But in the aftermath of the hurricane terrible crimes have occurred.
Texas native best known for his Hap and Leonard series Joe R Lansdale’s The Big Blow (2000) also has a pugilism theme. Galveston, Texas. In this tale the hurricane is brewing offshore as boxer John McBride arrives from Chicago to challenge the local heavyweight champion, a 22 year-old Jack Johnson, as-yet unknown to the broader boxing world. Problem is, Johnson is black and the local Sporting Club doesn’t want him to leave the ring alive. Around the fight is a town filled with prostitutes and gamblers, storm-tossed sailors and everyday citizens. It’s full of local color from an author who has been called ‘the bard of East Texas’.
Galveston recovered and enter the roaring twenties apparently roaring louder than most. Flappers, Flasks and Foul Play (2013), the first in Houston-based writer Ellen Mansoor Collier’s Jazz Age Mystery series is full on 1920s Galveston: the “Sin City of the Southwest.” Jasmine “Jazz” Cross, a 21-year-old society reporter, suspects foul play when a bank VP collapses at her half-brother Sammy’s speakeasy. Was it an accident or a mob hit? Jazz wants to know, as does Prohibition Agent James Burton. Jazz is back in Bathing Beauties, Booze and Bullets (2013). Now it’s 1927 in Galveston and Jazz is the society reporter for the Galveston Gazette who tries to be taken seriously by the good-old-boy staff, but the editors only assign her fluffy puff pieces, like writing profiles of bathing beauties. Agent Burton is still rousting speakeasies and facing down the Oleander City’s underworld mob bosses. Jazz is back once again in Prohibition Galveston in Gold Diggers, Gamblers and Guns (2014), a travelling vaudeville show comes to town in Vamps, Villains and Vaudeville (2015), and finally one last time in Deco Dames, Demon Rum and Death (2018), by now in a relationship with Prohibition Agent Burton, who’s still chasing rum-running gangsters.
Galveston’s Roaring Twenties come to a crashing halt with the Great Depression in James Carlos Blake’s Under the Skin (2003). An illegitimate son of an infamous Mexican revolutionary serves as the bodyguard to a pair of gangsters who hold sway over Depression-era Galveston, before he falls in love with the young wife of an aging put powerful Mexican warlord. Blake writes the tough-as-nails US-Mexico border novels featuring Eddie Gato Wolfe but this Galveston-set stand alone is a fantastic read too.
And into the 1940s with Galveston ’44 (2020) by BW Peterson. It’s 1944, and Sheriff Sam Baker has his hands full enforcing the laws of the wide-open town of Galveston, patrolling its quasi legal casinos and cathouses. A wartime murder, someone close to Baker in the frame and the city a den on iniquity.
And so to contemporary Galveston and the Gulf Coast….
Right along that East Texas coast is the setting for Attica Locke’s terrific Highway 59 series (the road that basically traverses the state). In Bluebird, Bluebird (2017) Darren Mathews, a black Texas Ranger patrols the backwoods towns of Highway 59. In the town of Lark, two murders have been committed – a black lawyer from Chicago and a local white woman. It’s a mess threatening to explode into racial tensions that are not far below the service in this part of the world. Ranger Matthews returns in Heavan, My Home (2019) when nine-year-old Levi King finds himself all alone, adrift on the vastness of Caddo Lake and a town suffering a new wave of racial violence in the wake of the election of Donald Trump. A black man is a suspect in the possible murder of a missing white boy: the son of an Aryan Brotherhood captain.
And a few more Galveston/Gulf Coast set crime novels….
- Rachel Cochran’s The Gulf (2023) is set in the fictional town of Parson, Texas, a small town ravaged by a devastating hurricane and the Vietnam War. Murders, Vietnam vets, the long-estranged returning to town and a big dollop of Gulf Coast atmosphere.
- Texas journalist-turned-novelist Julia Heaberlin heads to the Gulf Coast in Black-Eyed Susans (2015) with a chase from the Gulf Coast to Waco involving Tessa Cartwright, the only survivor of a notorious serial killer.
- From Sugar Land, Texas, Kristen Bird worked as a teacher in Galveston before writing The Night She Went Missing (2022) is set on nearby Galveston Island where cracks and deep class divides are showing in the residents seemingly perfect lives.
And finally, something extra special and a personal favourite of mine – Nic Pizzolatto’s Galveston (2014). A perfectly formed and executed short noir from the creator of True Detective, with all the atmosphere and febrile tension you’d expect from the man behind that TV show. Roy Cady is by his own admission ‘a bad man’. With a snow flurry of cancer in his lungs and no one to live for, he’s a walking time-bomb of violence. He’s on the run from New Orleans to Galveston, a journey of seedy bars and fleabag hotels, a world of treacherous drifters, pick-up trucks. Read the book, soak up the Gulf Coast atmosphere and then watch the great movie they made from it too.