St. Louis Native's Racy, Riveting Historical Novel Won’t Leave Readers Lemp

Jul 18, 2019 at 2:01 pm
Author and Affton native Scott Hess offers a scandalous tale set in old St. Louis. - COURTESY LETHE PRESS
Author and Affton native Scott Hess offers a scandalous tale set in old St. Louis.

New York author Scott Alexander Hess is clearly a St. Louis native. Not only does he know every nook and cranny of this haunted metropolis, from the palatial structures (past and present) to the dark labyrinth of caverns beneath us, he masterfully captures the cultural through lines that have defined our city since its inception—manifested in the suspicion of outsiders, intricate class dynamics, the sinister machinations of the powerful, and above all, the desperate desire to keep our many secrets buried.

But even that achievement is but the tip of the iceberg for the triumph that is River Runs Red. Set in the summer of 1891, this captivating novel, complete with tasteful homoerotic themes, is immersive and tactile. The sweat lingers from the stifling heat, you smell the lush gardens and you feel the mud of the Mississippi between your toes. (I’ve long said if St. Louis were a movie character she’d be Sunset Boulevard’s Norma Desmond, and in River Runs Red her most critical but maligned asset, the mighty Mississippi, is ready for her close up and finally gets her due. After the final chapter you just might be inspired to take a dip).

While the reported homoerotic themes raised eyebrows in some corners of the local literary community well in advance of the release, the true scandal is that the characters are based on historical St. Louis elites. The spinning in our city’s graveyards could certainly power the Arch lights for months.

Reached at his Upper East Side home, Hess, who was raised in Affton, says he was originally inspired by his grandmother’s stories of his great grandfather’s work on the Wainwright Building—heralded as the world’s first skyscraper, coupled with an article he read which speculated that architect Louis Sullivan might have been gay. “Louis Sullivan was handsome and sturdy, and I thought it was intriguing that he considered himself a poet, and wrote a book on his musings.” Hess says.

The seedy underbelly of St. Louis in 1891 was along the river banks, and in his book Hess describes colorful characters living and hustling along the shore, some who seemed straight out of New Orleans.

“My Grandma Bush grew up in Soulard, and I remember the earthy, mystical vibe she described. She was a soulful woman and spoke often of the riverfront. I remember one story involved a fortune teller.”

The relentless villain of Hess' fiction is a brewery heir who thinks he owns St. Louis and seeks to uncover and exploit the vices of others while over indulging in his own, often in the caves deep beneath this vast empire.

River Runs Red is full of passion, longing, and intrigue, and Hess’s ultimate aim is to see it visualized in a television series⁠—introducing the world to the unique drama of St. Louis.

Readers can meet Hess during a signing at 7 p.m. on August 1 at Left Bank Books (399 N Euclid Ave. 314-367-6731.)
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