Book review: The Axeman’s Jazz by Ray Celestin
In 1919, New Orleans, the city known to many as ‘the Big Easy,’ was in reality perilously uneasy…
Racial segregation, the sinister forces of Mafia rule and restless veterans returning from the battlefields of the First World War had turned the city into a tinderbox.
So a series of brutal murders – by a killer labelled the Axeman and who publicly declared his ‘close relationship with the Angel of Death’ – had the potential to blow apart the city as suspicion and fear cast a dark, dangerous shadow.
Debut novelist Ray Celestin harnesses his trained scriptwriting eye for drama with the fascinating real-life story of the terrifying, Tarot card-touting Axeman in this atmospheric, high-tension thriller set in the broiling heat of the Deep South city that became the birthplace of jazz.
Blending music, history and crime, Celestin builds a wickedly seductive and gripping tale as three people – one aided and abetted by a young, cornet-playing Louis Armstrong – set out to unmask the serial killer.
As each of them draws closer to discovering the killer’s identity, the Axeman issues a bizarre challenge to the people of New Orleans – play jazz or risk becoming the next victim.
When the New Orleans Times publishes a chilling letter from a writer claiming to be the Axeman stalking the city and pledging to kill all those who do not have ‘a jazz band in full swing’ on the night of his next visit, the police are under pressure to find him… soon.
In charge of the case is Detective Lieutenant Michael Talbot but he is struggling to find leads and knows all too well that the Axeman’s demonic Tarot calling cards are stirring up fears of voodoo and convincing lawless white gangs that the murderer must be black.
The Axeman has already found his way into three households, killing among others a mother and her child, and with each attack becoming more gruesome and more crazed, panic is spreading like wildfire.
But Michael is hampered by events in the past and has some explosive secrets which, if he doesn’t get himself on the right track fast, could be exposed by those in authority who would use him as their scapegoat.
Meanwhile detective Luca d’Andrea has spent the last five years in a state penitentiary after Michael, his protégé, blew the whistle on his corrupt behaviour. Now a newly freed man, Luca is back working with the Mafia and their need to solve the mystery of the Axeman is every bit as urgent as that of the police.
And the third person in the hunt is Ida Davis, a lowly secretary at the Pinkerton Detective Agency who laps up Sherlock Holmes novels and dreams that one day she will be given a real detective role.
Ida is of mixed race but knows that she’s a bright girl and deserves a break instead of settling for the bottom rung of the ladder ‘just because other people deemed her gender and the tint of her skin to be a hindrance.’
Now she has stumbled across a clue to the murders and has enlisted the help of her musician friend ‘Lewis’ Armstrong to add some necessary male credibility to her covert and very dangerous investigations.
As Michael, Luca and Ida draw closer to discovering the killer’s identity and the case builds to its climax, the skies darken and a massive hurricane charts a deadly course towards New Orleans…
The Axeman’s Jazz was always going to be an ambitious project… delving deep into a true crime, blending a network of real and fictional characters and painting a portrait of an energetic, cosmopolitan city blighted by corruption and racism is a daunting challenge.
But Celestin, the new kid on the block, has proved himself more than equal to the task. Using exceptional scene setting, zippy dialogue, a notably gutsy female lead and a mesmerising sense of time and place, he gets to the cruel heart of a savage crime and the musical soul of a sultry city.
Behind the increasingly frenetic hunt for the Axeman are three detectives, each with a different kind of axe to grind. Through their individual investigations, we discover that they all have secret agendas and that each is compelled to track down the killer for very personal and impelling reasons.
This is a thriller which doesn’t just ask whodunit but why do the hunters need to know whodunit, and with the door left ajar for a sequel, we can look forward to more from this intriguing, intrepid author.
(Mantle, hardback, £16.99)