The Axeman’s Jazz by Ray Celestin – Review by Frances Winston
Published by Panmacmillan
The Axeman was a real serial killer who murdered six people in New Orleans between 1918 and 1919 and then vanished without being caught – much like Jack the Ripper. If you are a fan of the TV show American Horror Story you may be familiar with him as was resurrected as a character in last year’s offering Coven. Here Celestin, in his debut novel, takes these real events and weaves a fictional thriller around them with the rich sights, sounds and smells of New Orleans serving as his backdrop.
As Detective Lieutenant Michael Talbot struggles to find leads he is also worried about having his own secrets exposed. Meanwhile shamed former Detective Luca d’Andrea has just been released from the State Penitentiary after serving six years for corruption and finds himself working for the Mafia to find the killer. Elsewhere Ida, a secretary at the Pinkerton Detective Agency, finds herself drawn into the search for the killer when she stumbles upon a clue. Unable to join the police force due to her gender and race she and her friend Lewis Armstrong put themselves in terrible danger as they try to get to the bottom of the case.
The real killer wrote a letter to a journalist saying that he would pass through the city but would spare anyone playing jazz music and this is reproduced here. Real events merge with the fictional as all three characters weave their way through the colourful city. There are plenty of twists and turns along the way and more than one “I didn’t see that coming moment”. The fact that Lewis turns out to be legendary jazz trumpeter Louis Armstrong is another nice touch that helps pull together the worlds of fact and fiction.
Celestin has thrown everything but the kitchen sink at this. There is a lot going on with the three intertwining stories and alongside the murder mystery he also tries to address other issues of the era such as racial discrimination. He handles the various strands well and the reader never feels lost. You get a great sense of character and really feel pulled into their world. He lets himself down somewhat in the descriptive passages of the city. While he does paint a picture it is not as rich or vibrant as you would expect and I didn’t feel he fully conveyed the spirit of the Big Easy. However the character dialogue has an excellent flow and you could almost see this on the big screen it reads so naturally. It builds to the climax like a crescendo and when you put the book down you will find yourself reanalyzing it at length.
This is a solid debut. Taking well known real life incidents could have worked against him but Celestin has written it in such a way that you would take this entire book as a factual account of the case if you weren’t told otherwise. It is well plotted with engaging characters and keeps you turning the page. He could be more descriptive of the city but on the whole this is an engaging historical murder mystery.