A very dark jazz

After two particularly gloomy reads - Days in the history of silence and Sophie's Choice, I was in need of something a little less dark. Fans of crime fiction will probably not be too surprised that I settled on a crime novel, Ray Celestin's stunning debut novel The Axeman's Jazz. 

Celestin blends real life events and people along with fiction to produce a smashing crime novel based around the real-life serial killer "The Axeman", who haunted the streets of New Orleans in 1918-1919.  The Axeman went on a killing spree, principally among the Italian-American community  in the Deep South city over the course of a year, until he suddenly disappeared and was never seen again.

In Celestin's novel there are three distinct threads: Detective Lieutenant Michael Talbot, a policeman with a troubled history, is hunting the killer despite barriers placed in his way; Luca D'Andrea, a former policeman and one-time mentor to Talbot, is on the killer's track on behalf of the New Orleans Mafia, while Ida, a young black woman with aspirations to become a private investigator, is also out to find the killer, with her friend, jazz musician, Lewis "Louis" Armstrong, providing back-up.

Usually I'm not mad on this type of cross-over fact/fiction novel, but I absolutely loved The Axeman's Jazz. Brilliantly written, the novel brought the steamy city of New Orleans jubilantly to life. It brought back so many memories of a holiday that I had spent there, and the uproarious musical life of the city. The semi-fictional Louis Armstrong was a joy - as well as being a great character, there were so many tiny details of his early life, that were a delight to anyone who enjoys his music. Meanwhile the story itself was brilliantly told.

The three different aspects of the story told via three characters, also enabled the murders themselves to be approached from different angles giving several possibilities for the Axeman's identity, and for the reasons behind the murders. Although Celestin's conclusions are of course fictional, there are some intriguing ideas here. There's also a great cliff-hanger which suggests that this might be the first of a sequence following Michael and Ida's detective adventures in Prohibition Chicago.

I do hope so, as The Axeman's Jazz was thoroughly enjoyable. It may have been at times gruesome, but it was also vibrantly alive. One of the best debut crime novels I've read in some time.

The video that tops this post is of the bizarre The mysterious axeman's jazz : (Don't scare me, Papa) by Joseph John Davilla. In a letter published by a local paper, the Axeman promised to spare anyone who had a jazz band playing in his house on a night when the Axeman was due to pass through the city. Whether this letter was actually written by the Axeman or by a jazz aficionado with a flair for publicity is open to debate, but Davilla's rag must be one of the all-time weirdest best sellers of popular music.


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