Title: The Axeman’s Jazz
Author: Ray Celestin
Publisher/Date Published: Pan Books, 2015
How I Got This Book: Purchased from Waterstones.
Rating: 4 out of 5
I picked up The Axeman’s Jazz on a whim whilst mooching through Waterstones. I read the blurb on the back, and it made me cast my mind back to Season 3 of American Horror Story, where one of the main characters was the mysterious Axeman of New Orleans.
The Axeman’s Jazz has won the CWA John Creasey Award for best debut novel, and it’s easy to see why. It follows the story of the famous 1918-19 New Orleans serial killer, targetting Italian-Americans, and three different people’s attempts to solve the crime before the killer strikes again.
The main characters are Detective Lieutenant Michael Talbot, his former mentor, Luca d’Andrea, and Ida Davies, a Sherlock Holmes fan and secretary for the Pinkerton Detective Agency. The novel does an excellent job at exploring the different investigative methods of the three characters, and the ways in which their personalities/looks/experience all differ in their interactions with other characters.
Each character has an intricate backstory, peppered with tragedy and triumph. All three characters face difficulties within the novel as well – Talbot is the police officer in charge of the case, and his career is on the line, whereas d’Andrea has just been released from prison, and is tied to the Mafia due to prior events. Meanwhile, Ida is neither black, nor white, and this means she suffers from the racism that blighted America in the early part of the twentieth century.
Racism is a big theme in the book, and one which is explored in great depth. New Orleans in the 1910s typifies the ‘melting pot’ that America became over the course of history – Italians, Irish, Creole and Cajun Americans all live with each other, in a swirl of suspicion and antipathy. Segregation is rampant, and each of the characters deals with this during the novel – something which I think really enhances the plot further – Celestin doesn’t shy away from throwing obstacles into the path of the characters, but this doesn’t detract or hinder the plot in any way.
My main criticism with the book is that there are lots of bits that don’t quite seem fleshed out enough – the Mafia is introduced as a main foil to lead the investigators to the murderer, but the intricate details that I wanted to know weren’t provided – especially when you think about how Luca ended up imprisoned. Similarly, the tensions between Ida and everyone else aren’t as detailed as I hoped, and Michael’s struggle regarding his wife was only touched upon. There was also the introduction of a fourth character who accompanied Michael, and I felt that he wasn’t given enough page-time and his story wasn’t as satisfying as it could have been.
Ultimately, though, this is a really interesting take on the myth of the Axeman, and the mystery itself plays out to an incredibly satisfying conclusion and I really enjoyed the build up. I like that the characters didn’t particularly dovetail as much as they may have in other novels. I definitely recommend the novel to anyone interested in thrillers, mystery or some history.