Ahead of my review for the third book in the City Blues Quartet, The Mobster’s Lament, I’m revisiting the second instalment, Dead Man’s Blues, a historical novel based on fact. It was released in audio format in August 2016 by Wholestory Audiobooks and narrated superbly by Christopher Ragland.
Following of from The Axeman’s Jazz, Dead Man’s Blues opens in 1922 with Louis Armstrong moving to Chicago to join Joe ‘King’ Oliver’s band as the new cornet player. Although I wasn’t sure about Louis Armstrong in the first book, he and his music fit into the background of this story perfectly. And there are lots more cameo appearances adding authenticity to the story. The timeline of one or two events are altered to fit, without taking anything away from the narrative.
Fast forward to 1928 and Dante Sanfelippo arrives in his hometown of Chicago from New York. He’s a fixer, a gentleman bootlegger and rum-runner among other things and he’s in Chicago because his presence was requested by his old friend, Al Capone. Capone thinks there’s a traitor in his camp after a poisoning incident at a party, and the gruesome death of a gangster. He wants Dante to investigate, root out the traitor and find out who supplied the poisoned champagne. Dante never wanted to return to Chicago again after he lost his wife and family in similar circumstances. Dante’s life was shattered by the tragedy, for which he blames himself, turning him into a heroin addict. He’s a sympathetic character who has lost his way but is intrinsically good.
The man, Dante Sanfelippo, was a little into his thirties, of medium height and slender build, with Mediterranean features and striking eyes……
‘I’m here to see Mr Capone,’ Dante said, and the closest gunman gave him the twice-over.
’Tell him it’s Dante the Gent.’ At the mention of the name the gunman frowned, as if a ghost had just introduced himself, then a look of realization was chased across his face by a look of worry.
Michael Talbot and Ida Davis are settled in Chicago after leaving New Orleans several years previously. Even though they haven’t left racial prejudice behind them as they hoped, Michael is able to live openly with his wife and family in a black section of the city. Ida’s wish to work as a detective has materialised and they are both successfully working for the Pinkerton National Detective Agency. On the strength of their reputation for solving cases they are hired by one of the Chicago elite, Mrs Van Haren, to find her missing daughter, Gwendolyn, who unaccountably disappeared at the same time as her fiancé. The police are making no headway and seem reluctant to pursue their enquiries.
Crime scene photographer Jacob Russo, unable to join the police force because of an old ankle injury, is haunted by the image of the gangster in the alley. Because the police don’t seem interested, he begins his own investigation after catching the scent of chemically altered alcohol around the body and glass shards from a bottle embedded in his hand.
The tightly plotted story threads are woven together masterfully as the cases and investigators overlap creating an incredible, and fearsome, picture of 1920’s gangster controlled Chicago, with corruption, booze and jazz at it’s heart. The juxtaposition of brutal violence and wonderful music is quite bizarre but compelling. The mood of the era is captured brilliantly and the representation of Al Capone, the effects of his medical condition on his personality, the power he wields and the resulting fear are explored incredibly well. The characters are credible, defined and make an impact. The historical details are outstanding. The writing style is vivid and captivating. I loved it. I believe there are two more to come, I can’t wait to see what Ray Celestin comes up with next!
I’m enjoying Christopher Ragland’s narrations as well. He has a good repertoire of voices and gives a great representation of the characters.
Quotes scattered throughout add to the flavour.
‘We have reached a time when a policeman had better throw a couple of bullets into a man first and ask questions afterward. It’s a war. And in wartime you shoot first and talk second.’ ~ Detective William Shoemaker 1925
The only effective rule in Chicago is that of violence, imposed by crooks and murderers. The ill fame of Chicago is spreading through the world and bringing shame to Americans who wish they could be proud of that city. They are forced to apologize for America’s second-largest city and to explain that it is a peculiar place ~ Washington Post 1928
About the Book
Chicago, 1928. In the stifling summer heat three disturbing events take place. A clique of city leaders is poisoned in a fancy hotel. A white gangster is found mutilated in an alleyway in the Blackbelt. And a famous heiress vanishes without a trace.