Ray Celestin – The Axeman’s Jazz

raycelestin-theaxemansjazzNew Orleans, 1919. As a dark serial killer – The Axeman – stalks the city, three individuals set out to unmask him.

Detective Lieutenant Michael Talbot, heading up the official investigation, and harbouring a grave secret, is struggling to find leads. Former detective Luca d’Andrea, working with the mafia, whose need to solve the mystery of the Axeman is every bit as urgent as that of the authorities. Meanwhile, Ida, a secretary at the Pinkerton Detective Agency, stumbles across a clue which lures her and her musician friend, Louis Armstrong, to the case and into terrible danger . . .

As Michael, Luca and Ida each draw closer to discovering the killer’s identity, the Axeman himself will issue a challenge to the people of New Orleans: play jazz or risk becoming the next victim.

The Axeman’s Jazz has been languishing on my TBR shelves for a year. I’d originally planned to read it for last year’s historical fiction month in conjunction with my interview with its author, Ray Celestin, but the best laid plans and all that. Thus I decided that The Axeman’s Jazz should be my first book read for this year’s historical fiction month. And it ended up making me kick myself for not reading it last year, because it was a fascinating read. 

Celestin tells his story within an interesting structure that has three main investigative teams all investigating the Axeman murders. It’s a different way to tell the story of the investigation as it allows Celestin to give the reader all of the puzzle pieces, while still making his characters have to hunt for the truth. Instead of lessening tension as might be expected, it actually cranks it up when the protagonists go into danger unknowingly, when the reader knows what is waiting for them and can only read on and hope all will be well.

The three investigative teams are all equally compelling, but each for a different reason. First and the only one officially assigned to the case is Detective Lieutenant Michael Talbot, who is supported by a young constable called Kerry. They are the official arm of the law, but this is not the police force as we know it. Corruption is rife with many officers on the take from the local mafia and means being limited. While Michael and Kerry are straight arrows, they need to work within this crooked system and within the murky politics of the city that is New Orleans. I found it interesting to see how divided along nationalities and race everything was at the time. I’d expected the race segregation, this the South in 1919 after all, but I hadn’t expected the other nationalities, such as the Italians, Irish, Creole and French to still be as divided and on tense footing as they were.

The second team gives an entirely different view of the city. Ida Davis and Lewis, or Louis as he’d be later known, Armstrong are both black, which makes their options for investigating and the contacts they can utilise quite different from the others. Ida is octoroon, a term I hadn’t encountered before, which means that she is one-eighth of African descent and can often pass for white, a fact she often uses in the course of her investigation. Celestin uses this difference between Ida and Lewis to emphasise how arbitrary and unjust racial segregation is and even how some situations were more dangerous to Lewis than to Ida, all because of the colour of their skin. As Ida, a secretary for the Pinkerton Agency, is investigating the Axeman murders without official approval, she has to do everything on the sly and I really loved her spunk and her determination to see it through to the end.

The last investigator is Luca D’Andrea, an ex-detective, just released from prison and pressed back into service by the local mafia to solve these Axeman murders as they are impinging on their ability to do business. Luca is a tragic figure. A man who has done bad things, but whose time inside has given him perspective and even reformed him up to a point, Luca doesn’t want to go back to his old ways. Yet getting away from the family isn’t as easy as that and so he thinks he is striking a deal: catch the killer and go free. I liked Luca and his storyline a lot and the eventual resolution of his arc left me saddened for his fate.

All three groups conduct their investigation within the parishes of New Orleans and in some ways the city and its love of music is its own character in the book. The atmosphere oozes off the page as does the music that powers the city. I’m no great jazz connoisseur, so much of the people mentioned in the book flew right by me, except for Louis Armstrong obviously, but there was a lot of heart for this style of music in the writing. The story is set in 1919 and that is a very different time than ours. I confess that I flinched every time the word negro was used, which in context shouldn’t be seen as offensive, but to me was hard to decouple from its modern day reception. Throughout the narrative, in addition to the looming threat of a new Axeman murder, there is also a storm coming, with continual rain already causing problems throughout and the final storm which mirrors the climax of the mystery, was reminiscent of scenes I’d read about in connection to Katrina. It was an effective way to create additional tension to an already fraught situation.

The Axeman’s Jazz is a fantastic story and a wonderful debut. I can definitely see why it won the CWA Best Newcomer Award last year. If you like your historical crime fiction atmospheric and written in a wonderful voice then you should most definitely check out The Axeman’s Jazz. I loved the time I spent with this novel and I’m looking forward to reading Ray Celestin’s next offering.

This book was provided for review by the publisher.