Early in Yellow Jack, the principal character’s father falls victim to a biting-robbery-murder during an outdoor encounter with a Parisian prostitute. A few pages later, young Claude Marchand, now in residence at New Orleans, starts to rob a man in a similar position only to become his partner in the early photography business and in a ménage à trois. If this were a didactic novel from the 1840s era in which it is set, the moral would be to keep one’s member within one’s trousers lest one be bitten or beset.
The novel tells the story of an evil assistant to Edward Daguerre who pirates the process as it is being developed in Paris and sets up as a miraculous portrait producer in New Orleans. The character is so vile that we are informed early on that he will throw himself in the river at the end of the book, presumably to encourage us to read on for the happy ending. The narrative consists of a series of observations from a fictional book of the early history of daguerreotypes, interspersed with first person accounts from the protagonist Marchand (actually a name he borrowed from an associate) and Millicent, his racially mixed mistress whose improbable devotion remains one of the book’s mysteries.
A yellow fever epidemic combines with liberal doses of mercury vapor and opium smoke to create a miasma throughout the book. We follow the narrator from relishing passive buggery to casual adultery to consensual sex with an eleven-year old girl. The epidemic and the early development of photography provide a backdrop.
Like too many historical novels, Yellow Jack has no author’s note to guide the reader between invention and history. The principal interest of the novel to those who might not relate to the sexual landscape would probably be the 47 daguerreotypes described but not otherwise represented.