|THE AXEMAN’S JAZZ
New Orleans, May 1919. A man, styling himself the Axeman, has already brutally murdered six people, leaving tarot cards by their mutilated bodies, and has sent a letter to the Times-Picayune promising more in the future. Independently of each other, three people – Detective Lieutenant Michael Talbot; former policeman and mobster Luca D’Andrea, fresh out of prison; and Ida Davis, a secretary at the local branch of the Pinkerton Detective Agency – begin to investigate this rash of killings, determined to find the identity of the Axeman and put him out of business before he can claim any further more lives.
Ray Celestin’s debut novel takes us back to the city of New Orleans in the aftermath of the First World War. Alternating the narrative between the three main characters, he brings the reader along on three separate fictional investigations into a series of historical crimes that occurred in the city between 1918 and 1919. Each of the protagonists have their own motive for investigating the crimes, and the three separate investigations allow us to see three completely different sides of this city that has changed little in the almost 100 years since the novel’s setting.
Michael Talbot is second-generation Irish, a member of the police force who is not liked by his colleagues because of the history with Luca D’Andrea. D’Andrea himself is an Italian mobster-turned-policeman who ended up in prison on Talbot’s testimony. Free after five years, his only wish now is to return home to his native Sicily and finish out his days where he belongs. But Carlos Matranga, his boss, has one final job for him before he will let him go: find the identity of the Axeman who has, to date, exclusively killed Italian grocers and their families. The third narrative follows young Ida Davis, a young woman who has joined the local office of the Pinkertons as a secretary, a compromise to get her foot on the first rung of the ladder that will ultimately see her become a detective in her own right. Her boss, a lazy Cajun, may well be in the pocket of the mafia – the Black Hand – so her investigations are done in secret, and with the help of her young musician friend Louis "Little Lewis" Armstrong.
There is something of the personality of the city itself in Celestin’s choice of protagonists: New Orleans has always been something of a cultural melting pot and the fact that only one of the three protagonists is a true Orleanais does something to reflect this. Celestin pays careful attention to the city, so that it plays an important part in the narrative, and goes to great lengths to ensure that the reader can feel the heat, smell the smells and hear the sounds that make the city unique. More than any other author since James Lee Burke, Ray Celesin nails New Orleans to the page, transporting the reader into the heart of the city, and of the action.
This melting pot culture comes with the usual religious, racial and political tensions, and it is this division that drives the fractured narrative style of the plot. Talbot is investigating because it is his job to do so; D’Andrea is investigating because of the Italian connection, and because the Black Hand want to be seen to be taking matters into their own hands; Ida has something to prove to her boss, but is also keen to ensure that justice is done, and the crimes aren’t hung on the nearest convenient black man, as the prevailing theory throughout the city would have it.
The mystery itself is a little prosaic, and is designed to not necessarily be solved by the reader. What makes The Axeman’s Jazz worth the read are the characters, the setting and the clever construction that ensures that these three strands of investigation run in parallel for the duration of the novel, rarely picking up on the same clues, and never seeding information from one to the other. As the novel draws to a close, it’s interesting to see how each of the investigators come to the right conclusion, but the novel’s beauty lies in the fact that, when all is said and done, the only person who knows the whole story is the reader, piecing together information from the three different strands.
As a fan of this kind of mixture of historical fact and fiction – this is in a similar vein to, say, Caleb Carr’s The Alienist – I quickly became engrossed in The Axeman’s Jazz. Of course, the fact that New Orleans might be one of my favourite places on the planet – and the fact that it is so beautifully rendered by Celestin – helps immensely. For me, the most interesting character is Louis Armstrong – referred to throughout as Lewis – a man who we see out of his familiar setting (although, by all accounts, not in the type of situation that was unfamiliar to him), and who we first meet as part of the band at a jazz funeral:
She stepped off the pavement and made her way up the line of mourners, scanning the faces of the musicians, looking for her closest friend, possibly her only friend – a chubby-faced young horn-player on second cornet who had not yet changed the pronunciation of his name to the French form Louey, and was still known to Ida and everyone else in the Battlefield, as Lil’ Lewis Armstrong.
Ray Celestin’s first novel is big on characterisation and sense of place. It’s a spot-on rendition of a unique point in time and a unique place on Earth, and has enough suspense to ensure that the reader stays engaged throughout. Celestin excels when it comes to attention to detail – both in terms of the history and the location – but never at the cost of moving the story along and The Axeman’s Jazz is an excellent debut, the perfect introduction to a talented writer and, with any luck, a handful of entertaining and engaging detectives.