The Axeman’s Jazz

My first read of 2015 was Ray Celestin’s historical crime novel, The Axeman’s Jazz (2014). Set in New Orleans in 1919, Celestin’s debut is (loosely) based on actual events, and we follow the efforts of a host of detectives – actual, amateur, and disgraced – all working to catch a serial killer against a backdrop of sexual violence and simmering racial tensions in a segregated city. The legendary Louis Armstrong is even recruited to the task by Sherlock Holmes enthusiast and detective agency secretary, Ida Davis.

Axeman's JazzCelestin is a scriptwriter and as I read I couldn’t help thinking that this story is structured for television, with a fast-paced, action-packed, and inexorable unfolding of plot. I thought I would be gripped by the tale because I am fascinated by New Orleans and jazz, and am a fan both of historical fiction and crime writing. Perhaps my expectations were too high for the book, as it felt mechanical and predictable at times, its characters archetypical: the healer living out in the bayou, the eager rookie, the detective with a “grave” secret. As chapters were focalised by an alternating cast, I never felt like we spent long enough with anybody to really care about them – although the novel here attempts to emulate the jazz of its title, with characters performing individual solos within the framework of a larger communal arrangement. What I wanted was a more richly rendered depiction of New Orleans. For me, this peaked in the first chapter as Ida travels across town to join a funeral procession by following its sounds:

sound travelled without too much obstruction in New Orleans, a flat, wooden city of low-lying buildings, open ground, rivers and lakes… it was almost as if the city has been constructed as an instrument for the dispersal of music (11).

I enjoyed this attention to the sonorous design of the city, and could imagine Ida being guided through the streets, which act like portals for the movement of jazz sounds. The novel is clearly well researched and this is what I appreciated most about it, but it lacks the sense of improvisation and experimentation inherent to jazz: it sticks to the sheet music, and closes by setting up for a sequel in a defining era of another iconic American city. I predict a mini-series or film deal in the near future.

Book info:

  • ISBN: 9781447258896
  • Mantle, 2014
  • A Christmas gift from my lovely in-laws ~ thank you!