This week’s Throwback Thursday is The Axeman’s Jazz, the first of a series of historical crime fiction, based on fact. I listened to the audio which was released in January 2015.
The story is woven round true events that took place in the segregated New Orleans of 1918/19. A serial killer is on the loose and Detective Lieutenant Michael Talbot is in charge of the investigation. The story opens with a letter to the editor of the New Orleans Times-Picayune found in the in-tray by reporter John Riley. Since the Axeman started his killing spree letters had been flooding in to the paper, but this one caught Riley’s eye. The envelope was unusual and the address was written in what Riley hoped was rust coloured ink. The letter claimed to be from the Axeman and in it he declared his fondness for jazz with a promise that any house playing such music need not fear a visit from him. Undecided if the letter was authentic, Riley decides to print it anyway.
The book follows three separate investigations. Michael Talbot, working the official investigation for the police department. Former detective Luca D’Andrea and Michael’s erstwhile mentor, who was found guilty of corruption and has just been released from Angola state penitentiary. And Ida Davis, secretary for the Pinkerton Agency, working with her oldest and best friend, cornet player Lewis (Louis Armstrong!). Because she is of mixed race and a woman, Ida is unable to realise her dream of joining the police force.
‘So you reckon you can figure out this Axeman thing?’ said Lewis, turning to look at her.
Ida stared at him and raised her eyebrows with mock seriousness. ‘There is no combination of events for which the wit of man cannot conceive an explanation.’ she said, before a Cheshire-cat grin broke out on her face. Ever since Lewis had met her, she had either been reading Conan Doyle books, or quoting them at him, and the thing had become a joke between the two of them.
An enjoyable debut with short chapters moving the story along, and even though I did find it dragged a little on a couple of occasions that didn’t detract at all. The inclusion of the original letter and police reports was a great touch and added authenticity. The characters are well defined and it was interesting to follow the investigations and resulting information from each of the perspectives. Although they arrived at the same end result it was by different routes and this was all woven together extremely well in a very exciting climax.
The narrative is well written and descriptive, giving an evocative, and sometimes unpleasant, flavour of pre prohibition New Orleans and the racial tension and segregation which was prevalent, along with drugs and sex trade. The Sicilian mobsters all but rule the city and corruption is rife in politics and the police force. I’m not sure what purpose is served by having a famous character in the cast, except that he’s Ida’s friend. The music scene doesn’t play a significant part in the story (This was carried on in subsequent books and made much more sense). Christopher Ragland does a good job considering how many accents and nationalities there are. His natural voice is smooth and pleasant to listen to, there were just quite a few wrong pronunciations which stood out. Having said that, I would listen to other narrations and have the next audiobook lined up, Dead Man’s Blues, which carries on the characters’ stories.
The real Axeman was never caught and the murders remain unsolved, but the way the author brings the story to a close is reasonable given the prevailing mood of the time.
About the Book
Though every citizen of the ‘Big Easy’ thinks they know who could be behind the terrifying murders, Detective Lieutenant Michael Talbot, heading up the official investigation, is struggling to find leads. But Michael has a grave secret – and if he doesn’t find himself on the right track fast – it could be exposed…