Written by Ray Celestin — Thirty years after Jack the Ripper stalked London’s foggy streets, a jazz-loving serial killer terrorised New Orleans. Between May 1918 and October 1919, eight people were murdered by the shadowy killer, who attacked his victims with their own chopper. The Axeman was never caught and, like Jack, his identity was still the subject of speculation decades after the mayhem. Now debut author Ray Celestin has stepped in with his own possible solution.
The Axeman’s love of jazz is based on an extraordinary letter purporting to be from the killer (addressed from ‘Hell’, like the 1888 letter supposedly from the Ripper) and published in newspapers. In the bizarre missive, he declared himself a fan of this new music and offered to spare any household where a jazz band was in full swing on the pre-announced date for his next attack. A local songwriter cashed in with his tune The Mysterious Axman’s Jazz (Don’t Scare Me Papa).
Writing about a notorious serial killer to entertain a modern readership might easily become a tawdry exercise. But Celestin’s novel is an extraordinary achievement in historical crime that earned him the John Creasey New Blood Dagger last month. Although he’s a Londoner, Celestin has produced a richly evocative portrayal of the Big Easy for his noir-infused procedural. His style is not quite as lyrical as James Lee Burke, but The Axeman’s Jazz is just as effective at transporting you to New Orleans: the sounds, the tastes, the edgy exuberance in this music-loving city.
Of course, Celestin also has to take you back almost a century so we learn about the Creole and Cajun communities of Louisiana, the regulated red-light district Storyville and the first fleet of motorcars employed by the New Orleans Police Department. There’s even a hint of voodoo around the Louisiana bayou, although there’s a suggestion it began simply as medicine for poor people and was later demonised by the authorities.
To capture the spirit of the burgeoning jazz scene, Celestin finds a role for a gifted cornet player with a troubled past. Suddenly you realise this 18-year-old is none other than the young Louis Armstrong (known as Lewis, at this point), a bold move in a novel that confidently melds storytelling with real-life characters and incidents. The musician is drawn into the Axeman mystery by his friend Ida Davis, an ambitious secretary at the Pinkerton detective agency who’s fond of quoting from Sherlock Holmes.
The Axeman’s Jazz is an ensemble procedural including police detectives past and present. The mafia-affiliated Luca d’Andrea has just been released from Angola, the prison in Louisiana, for corruption. Detective Lieutenant Michael Talbot was the protégé who helped put him away. Michael took his job but was rewarded with the enmity of his colleagues, while he has to conceal a secret family life with a wife and children of a different race – a dangerous situation for a cop in the American South in 1919.
The principal characters are gradually manoeuvred towards their motives. Luca is tasked with solving a serial killer case that makes the mob look weak because several of the victims were Italian-Americans paying protection money. Michael is trying to save his career as well as deflecting unwelcome attention from his home life. Ida is simply looking for her big break.
You become drawn into the hopes and struggles of Celestin’s characters, though he maintains a sense of mystery about his killer. The Axeman is a brutal murderer who somehow evades capture and leaves the doors of crime scenes locked behind him like a supernatural being. When we do get more of a glimpse – and the identity – of the killer during the flooding that occurs at the novel’s climax, he’s even more terrifying.
Ray Celestin has elevated this true crime case into an audacious debut that demonstrates his formidable powers in establishing characters – real and fictional – and a historical setting that linger long in the memory. It’s not just one of the best crime debuts of the year, it’s one of the best crime novels of the year. Judging by the teasing finale, set in another US city as prohibition approaches, his spellbinding combination of fact and fiction is set to continue.
CFL Rating: 5 Stars