Pelikan is one of the rarities of modern fiction: rousing and well written, a book with humor that never insults intelligence even as it outrages propriety. The journey begins when thirty-three-year-old Charlie Curtis travels to New Orleans on a deathbed assignment from his father to find the father's half-brother -- James Joseph Pelikan, who rules the French Quarter from midnight until dawn in places where tourists seldom venture. Charlie is barely off the train when he witnesses the murder of one of Pelikan's cronies by a woman whose only adornment is a fishhook through her lower lip. There ensues a drama, a caper, a quest.
Although unschooled, James Joseph Pelikan delivers outrageous riffs on such topics as the Mississippi River's being America's alimentary canal...and what that makes New Orleans. A pimp who arranges sex parties, he also serves as a paladin for nuns; he hustles and scams but will also bathe and feed the most wretched of the homeless; cruel and manipulative (he manages to break Charlie's heart and his finger), Pelikan is so obsessed by redemption that he'll use a toothbrush to clean sidewalks outside St. Louis Cathedral. That Charlie would eventually join this seducer in a hurricane-whipped burglary has more to do with loyalty than larceny.
In Pelikan, David Lozell Martin, acclaimed thriller writer and author of a literary classic, The Crying Heart Tattoo, has created something reminiscent of A Confederacy of Dunces with the kind of oddball characters and sense of place found in Carl Hiaasen and Elmore Leonard. Martin combines his skills as a writer of dark suspense (Lie to Me; Tap, Tap) and literary novels (The Beginning of Sorrows) to make Pelikan a carnival ride to enlightenment.
A comic romp through the dark underbelly of New Orleans in Martin's latest (after Tap Tap) begins when protagonist Charlie Curtis is instructed by his dying father to check up on the "Pelikan," the French Quarter's notorious criminal kingpin who is also Charlie's uncle. Charlie's journey quickly turns him into a murder suspect when an "associate" of his uncle is murdered by a naked, tattooed young blonde who disappears from the crime scene, leaving Charlie literally holding the smoking gun. Charlie is quickly picked up and worked over by a strange police detective named Mean Gene Renfrone, who is actually working for one of the Pelikan's rivals, Philippe Gallier, a corrupt Creole, in an ongoing local underworld war. When the police put the squeeze on Charlie in the murder investigation, the Pelikan hires an attorney for him who turns out to be Amanda, the old flame Charlie never forgot, who jilted him 12 years ago to become the Pelikan's lover. As Charlie is bounced back and forth between the Pelikan, Gallier and the police, he learns that a pivotal element in the ongoing battle is a massive heist the Pelikan has planned at a New Orleans repository, a robbery that takes place sooner than expected, rescheduled to coincide with the convenient appearance of a hurricane that will keep police occupied elsewhere. The various story lines are mostly a setup for Lozell's humorous take on a bizarre New Orleans, where women wear fishhooks through their lower lips to discourage blow jobs and a rat eats out of a young punk's mouth. Though startling and fresh at first, the shocks dazzle less as the novel progresses and the plot loses steam, fizzling out entirely during an unsatisfying, anticlimactic final robbery scene.