The Axeman's Jazz by Ray Celestin
Whilst that has nothing to do whatsoever with this novel, other than to have driven from my brain all thoughts of plot, structure, narrative and writerly panache, I can't simply dive in to a review now can I?
Based on a real-life unsolved murder spree from 1918-19, and not the first novel to bear this title, this historical detective story revolves around a pariah cop who turned state's evidence against his partner, who in turn gets out of prison to resume working for the New Orleans Mafia just as his ex-colleague is being offered up as scapegoat in the continuing failure to catch or stop the serial killer running around chopping up Italian greengrocers and leaving tarot cards behind. Into the mix comes a biracial would-be-Pinkerton secretary and her friend, legendary jazz musician Louis Armstrong, just turned 19 and already sunk deep into the fecund yet violent emotional world of New Orleans life and music. I know what you're thinking: why the hell? I can't answer that one for you I'm afraid. I wonder if Celestin had a bunch of Louis Armstrong pins on his Scrivener board and was just trying to find a way to shoe-horn them into a narrative. The Armstrong passages were some of the weakest sections, notwithstanding the description of him playing on the fateful night of March 19th - that was pretty good.
As is typical of the genre, the narrative trips about between characters' viewpoints, exhibiting a light authorial touch, and with surprising deftness, carves out a cognitively dissonant landscape of deep racial division and proud collective identity, where casual lawlessness and disinterest in the dictates and prohibitions passed down from Capital Hill provide an umbrella under which a broad mix of peoples congregate and cohabit, usually peacefully. Into the mix comes the ineffable fear that is the Axeman, seemingly killing at random and risks sparking a racial conflagration. And of course, this being New Orleans, there's shit loads of jazz, more so once a letter appears in the local tabloid explaining that The Axeman is coming back and if there's no jazz playing in your house then he'll be in to pay you a visit...
At this temporal remove even with the book in front of me, I can conjure very few really explosively brilliant passages, very little that wowed or amazed me from its pages. I enjoyed the read, which passed pretty quickly, but I do recall a piece of dialogue–monologue really, and he does seem to have a way with dialogue, almost cinematic at times– towards the resolution of the book which did stick with me, and in its own way, encapsulated the tragic comedy at the heart of division and ignorant hatred. If even a solid, flawed novel can leave you with something positive to take away, it has to be worth a read, so in defence of Ray Celestin's award winning novel, I offer it up to you.
Atmosphere in the town changed. When we went in to get supplies, there was a whole lot more silence around the place. I think that's how these things always start, people not talking to each other.