Book Review – Dead Man’s Blues (Ray Celestin)

Dead Man’s Blues

Ray Celestin

2016

Creeping out rather inconspicuously in August 2016, Dead Man’s Blues is Ray Celestin’s first sequel, in a planned series of four novels, to his 2014 debut The Axeman’s Jazz (reviewed here).  It seems to have made its way into publication rather quietly, which is somewhat surprising given the success of his debut. Only a recent cursory glance online led me to discover its release – lucky timing, too, as less than a week later I was fortunate to attend an ‘evening with’ event with the author in Waterstone’s Nottingham.

Quiet entry into the world or not, Dead Man’s Blues is a strong sequel. Picking up nine years after the events of the former novel, the book again revolves around the characters of Michael Talbot and Ida Davis (now both private detectives working for the Pinkerton Detective Agency) as well as the character of Louis Armstrong. The setting now is 1928 Chicago – a city at the very heart of the roaring twenties, with mob violence and bootlegging running the show.   Two new central characters are introduced – a young crime scene photographer named Jacob Russo, a bootlegging heroin-addict named Dante Sanfelippo.  As with its predecessor, the book follows each of the characters separately, each developed in their own way, but crossing each other’s paths more so than they did in the previous novel.

No portrayal of 1928 Chicago would be complete without some reference to Al Capone, and this book is no exception. Whilst more of a secondary character, a few chapters follow Capone and his ‘activities’ directly. To write about such a well-known figure can be tricky, especially in a historical novel of this sort, as the risk can be for his inclusion to sound like something that was thrown in for the purposes of making a book easier to sell. Fortunately, this is avoided here and Capone’s inclusion is suitably spread-out (although not without its importance), meaning the book rests more on weight of the underlying story. The same can be said for the use of Louis Armstrong as a character, although his inclusion is less directly involved with the events of the story itself than Capone’s.

Unlike The Axeman’s Jazz, where all the characters are involved in the hunt (for differing reasons) for the elusive ‘Axeman of New Orleans’, the characters here are working on different trails and assignments. Dante is conscripted back to Chicago by Capone to discover who was behind a mass-poisoning of city officials using poisoned booze, Jacob is hot on the trail of a serial killer behind two particularly brutal murders, whereas Michael and Ida are employed by a rich client to trace her missing daughter. Inevitably, the paths cross as they mutually uncover a conspiracy to run a high-level narcotics operation and instigate a damaging gangland war between Capone and his rivals (Bugs Moran, specifically). To say much more now, especially given the recent publication of the book, would be to spoil a satisfying tale.

The wider scale of the plot means it is perhaps a little less focused than the story in The Axeman’s Jazz, as the to-and-fro nature of the chapter structures and the differing stories for each character does mean that some plot points can be forgotten before that character’s particular tale is resumed, but on the whole it is well-constructed and enjoyable. As with Axeman…, the book attempts to blend the story within the remit of historical fact, using news reports and accounts of real historical events and occurrences to provide a rich background (although, as Celestin points out himself in his afterword, much artistic liberty is freely given to the dates, with certain events being moved back and forth to 1928 to accommodate the story).

In the same way Axeman featured the city of New Orleans as practically a central character itself, so does Dead Man’s Blues with Chicago. A metropolis running on bootlegging, mob violence and corruption, the sinister atmosphere of the city and the inhabitants within it are suitably emphasised as the plot darkens. There are few truly innocent characters here, and the violence is abound.

Overall, the book is a worthy follow up The Axeman’s Jazz. It’s not a direct sequel as such, but more of a continuation of a theme (organised crime through America) linked together by two or three central characters. It may lack the ‘hunt the serial killer’ element of its predecessor in favour of a more gangland-oriented tale about bootlegging and narcotics, but it tells its story well and bears all the qualities that made its predecessor successful. Two books in, the series shows no sign of letting up. Roll on the next instalment.

 

Creeping out rather inconspicuously in August 2016, Dead Man’s Blues is Ray Celestin’s first sequel, in a planned series of four novels, to his 2014 debut The Axeman’s Jazz (reviewed here).  It seems to have made its way into publication rather quietly, which is somewhat surprising given the success of his debut. Only a cursory glance online led me to discover its release – lucky timing, too, as less than a week later I was fortunate to attend an ‘evening with’ event with the author in Waterstone’s Nottingham.

Quiet entry into the world or not, Dead Man’s Blues is a strong sequel. Picking up nine years after the events of the former novel, the book again revolves around the characters of Michael Talbot and Ida Davis (now both private detectives working for the Pinkerton Detective Agency) as well as the character of Louis Armstrong. The setting now is 1928 Chicago – a city at the very heart of the roaring twenties, with mob violence and bootlegging running the show.   Two new central characters are introduced – a young crime scene photographer named Jacob Russo, a bootlegging heroin-addict named Dante Sanfelippo.  As with its predecessor, the book follows each of the characters separately, each developed in their own way, but crossing each other’s paths more so than they did in the previous novel

No portrayal of 1928 Chicago would be complete without some reference to Al Capone, and this book is no exception. Whilst more of a secondary character, a few chapters follow Capone and his ‘activities’ directly. To write about such a well-known figure can be tricky, especially in a historical novel of this sort, as the risk can be for his inclusion to sound like something that was thrown in for the purposes of making a book easier to sell. Fortunately, this is avoided here and Capone’s inclusion is suitably spread-out (although not without its importance), meaning the book rests more on weight of the underlying story. The same can be said for the use of Louis Armstrong as a character, although his inclusion is less directly involved with the events of the story itself than Capone’s.

Unlike The Axeman’s Jazz, where all the characters are involved in the hunt (for differing reasons) for the elusive ‘Axeman of New Orleans’, the characters here are working on different trails and assignments. Dante is conscripted back to Chicago by Capone to discover who was behind a mass-poisoning of city officials using poisoned booze, Jacob is hot on the trail of a serial killer behind two particularly brutal murders, whereas Michael and Ida are employed by a rich client to trace her missing daughter. Inevitably, the paths cross as they mutually uncover a conspiracy to run a high-level narcotics operation and instigate a damaging gangland war between Capone and his rivals (Bugs Moran, specifically). To say much more now, especially given the recent publication of the book, would be to spoil a satisfying tale.

The wider scale of the plot means it is perhaps a little less focused than the story in The Axeman’s Jazz, as the to-and-fro nature of the chapter structures and the differing stories for each character does mean that some plot points can be forgotten before that character’s particular tale is resumed, but on the whole it is well-constructed and enjoyable. As with Axeman…, the book attempts to blend the story within the remit of historical fact, using news reports and accounts of real historical events and occurrences to provide a rich background (although, as Celestin points out himself in his afterword, much artistic liberty is freely given to the dates, with certain events being moved back and forth to 1928 to accommodate the story).

In the same way Axeman featured the city of New Orleans as practically a central character itself, so does Dead Man’s Blues with Chicago. A metropolis running on bootlegging, mob violence and corruption, the sinister atmosphere of the city and the inhabitants within it are suitably emphasised as the plot darkens. There are few truly innocent characters here, and the violence is abound.

Overall, the book is a worthy follow up The Axeman’s Jazz. It’s not a direct sequel as such, but more of a continuation of a theme (organised crime through America) linked together by two or three central characters. It may lack the ‘hunt the serial killer’ element of its predecessor in favour of a more gangland-oriented tale about bootlegging and narcotics, but it tells its story well and bears all the qualities that made its predecessor successful. Two books in, the series shows no sign of letting up. Roll on the next instalment.

 

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