The Axeman’s Jazz
Setting off on my holiday within the past week, I had the inevitable question raised of what book to take along. Some time ago, I picked up this book on the basis of some strong reviews I had read online, plus a generous marketing push from my local Waterstones branch, but it always rested in the ‘mean to get around to reading this soon’ pile of my to-read list. On the basis of needing something substantive to get me through the flight and travel times, I finally pushed this to the front of the list. I was glad I did.
The Axeman’s Jazz (named after a piece of 1919 street music) is the 2014 debut novel by British writer Ray Celestin, and is a story that is part noir-thriller and part police procedural, with additional helping of mafia involvement thrown in for good measure. It is a fictional tale based around real events that occurred in 1918-1919 New Orleans, a city divided by racial tensions perhaps more so than any other city of the time. During that period, a serial killer known only as the Axeman prowled the streets killing off local (usual Italian) residents. The real killer was never caught, and heavy parallels can be drawn with Jack the Ripper, in that he sent letters boasting of his activities and mocking the police’s efforts to catch him. Only in the Axeman’s case, he sent his letter to the newspapers and said that he would spare anyone who played jazz music during the next night he had planned his visit. As with the Ripper, many theories have been presented about the identity of the killer, but the truth is that no one truly knows and it is likely to remain a mystery that will stay open forever.
The underlying plot of Celestin’s novel is the efforts made by three separate, but loosely entwined, groups of people trying to uncover the identity of the Axeman. Michael Talbot is a policeman whose reputation is in disgrace by virtue of having married a black nurse and fathering two children (a no-no in those days, you see) and who is trying to salvage what he can by solving the mystery of the man who is making a mockery of the police force. Next up is Luca D’Andrea, a former detective and the mafia’s mole inside the police force, who was sentenced to a long stretch in Angola once his extra-curricular activities were exposed by Talbot (who was himself Luca’s protégé), but who now dreams of escaping to Italy but is forced into tracking down the Axeman for his mafia cohorts so they can protect their own reputation in keeping the city (and protection-money payers) reassured of their own dominance. Third is Ida Davis, a secretary (and would-be private detective who spends a lot of time quoting Sherlock Holmes lines) at the Pinkerton Detective Agency who teams up with her musician friend Lewis Armstrong to help identify the Axeman based on some fortunate leads she identifies from the office, in the hopes of making herself into a full-fledged detective.
The three groups of characters rarely interact directly, so the novel can in places seen as three separate tales based around the same plot (aside from the occasion interaction between Talbot and D’Andrea), however it could be fairer to say that it is instead a single plot being told from three unique and separate perspectives. Celestin doesn’t slack on the detail for each plot, nor emphasise the developments of one set of characters over the other. Each chapter switches to a new group and so the action is maintained for each character throughout the entirety of the 425 pages. To his credit, Celestin doesn’t appear to take any significant historical liberties and bases his stories around the (we believe) real activities of the Axeman, the centrepiece of which is the infamous letter allegedly sent by the Axeman to newspapers on March 13 1919 informing of his next ‘visit’ and promising to spare those who played his favoured style of music – the jazz boom which was thriving (some would say born) in New Orleans at the time.
In the same way that writers such as Raymond Chandler made cities and locations such as LA as much a character as the individuals within their work, Celestin emphasises the role of New Orleans in much the same way. The racial tensions, mafia backroom politics and the impending threat of prohibition are portrayed in such a way to make New Orleans come alive in the pages, and reflect a city on the edge, where a solitary killer could ignite a fuse leading to a city falling apart by hate and violence. Celestin’s high level of research is clear and adds an extra air of drama to the story, which moves forward with relentless pace. The characters are believable and well developed. Celestin does take one liberty in creating an identity for the axeman, as well a clear background and incentive for his crimes, but the character he does create here is convincing and believable, which is no mean feat for a historical figure where so many theories have been raised over the years.
Overall, the book is a dark, violent but exciting and fast-paced thriller which is deserving of the awards it has been previously been lauded with. For a debut novel, it’s as good as you ca get, and bodes well for Celestin’s future work. His online presence is low, but his few words have already suggested to a sequel being written, as well as other works existing in the pipeline. If this debut is anything to go by, I’ll be eagerly picking up whatever next comes along.