Author: Ray Celestin
Finished on: 19 December 2015
Where did I get this book: At the marvellous Forum Books (visit described here).
This is a book about a series of revolting, gruesome murders. Set in New Orleans during the birth of the jazz era. And one of the characters is a young Lewis (as it is spelled throughout the book) Armstrong. I hope you can understand why, when I saw this book, I was powerless to resist.
Celestin succeeds in portraying the seedy, sinister glamour of 1919 New Orleans. The food, the music and the landscapes all come vividly to life. It reads like a love letter to a complicated and fascinating city, after an affair that left great memories but also maybe an STD or two.
The plot is given extra piquancy through the inclusion of elements of real events. There was an ‘Axeman’ serial killer in New Orleans in 1918 and 1919. And there was a letter supposedly written by him included in the newspaper, that prompted the city to hold one almighty night of partying and music. But other than this, Celestin has no pretensions to be telling a ‘true story’. He fully exploits the opportunities presented by the context in the city at that time: the growth of the mafia, the changing racial landscape and tensions, the burgeoning jazz scene, the vestiges of voodoo – to create a story that mixes all these elements together in a big delicious jambalaya of a plot.
Unfortunately though, it doesn’t quite come together as a coherent whole. To continue the tenuous food metaphor, each individual ingredient is impossible to resist, but the flavours haven’t been perfectly combined. This is partially due to Celestin’s choice to include three discrete stories of different people all separately attempting to solve the mystery of the Axeman’s identity. But also possibly because he is determined to include all these individually mouth-watering elements, and none of them are able to stand out as they could if given more profile.
And unfortunately the weakest element of the whole book is its characterisation. There is a rich cast of players, with some fascinating relationships between them. But even the characters that we spend a lot of time with, we never really get under their skin enough to become emotionally engaged. For example, I loved the character of Simone, a voodoo doctor living out in the swamps of the bayou, and would’ve loved to get to know her, and understood the role she played in the plot overall, better. Celestin also scratches the surface of some interesting exploration of race. Prejudice is still enormous (interracial marriage is illegal in the city) but the boundaries are starting to blur, and race is not just a matter of black and white, there are a lot of shades of grey: Ida’s appearance and the usefulness to her of being able to ‘pass’ for white in carrying out her investigations, Lewis’s transcending of some racial segregation through his music, the love between Michael and Annette, and the implications for their children. But again, we don’t delve much into how these issues have affected the characters and their motivations. A little more depth in the characterisation could perhaps have resulted in an even more engaging story overall. Although this is quite a picky criticism in a way, because the reason I was frustrated is that the characters are good and have enormous potential.
I try not to judge every murder story I read by whether it follows the Christie ‘rules’, really I do. It’s ok that The Axeman’s Jazz doesn’t really contain clues that would enable the reader to guess what will happen next; there is no way of predicting where the plot will take us or ‘whodunnit’. It’s ok that the individual threads of plot are not tied together in a nice neat knot by the end. I’m sure it’s a matter of personal preference that I want the killer to be one of the characters that we know from the beginning of story, and for the denouement to feel like the culmination of all that has come before.
But Christie’s stories work so well, they are so beautifully neat and satisfying, that I do find it difficult to fully embrace different formats of crime storytelling. This is my failing; I must be open to the messier, and presumably more realistic, story where you can’t see what is coming next, and the plot elements don’t necessarily all relate clearly to each other in one tidy whole.
This is an enjoyable book: vibrant and interesting. Recommended.