Book review – The Axeman’s Jazz

I prefer personal recommendations to recommendations from websites like goodreads, etc.  While I’m a user of goodreads it’s hard to arrive at a book I want to read because of the thousands of books reviewed and with so many of them receiving positive reviews.  You really are spoilt for choice.  So when someone recommends something to me personally, I generally check it out.  This has been rewarding, having recently enjoyed Philip Kerr’s Berlin Trilogy and Don Winslow’s The Power of the Dog.  Most recently The Axeman’s Jazz (2014), by British author Ray Celestin, was recommended to me.

The Axeman’s Jazz is based on the true story of the Axeman of New Orleans, a serial killer operating in New Orleans between 1918 and 1919.  The killer, who racked up 12 known victims and was never caught or even identified, wrote a threatening letter to a local newspaper, noting that ‘some of your people who do not jazz it out on that specific Tuesday night (if there be any) will get the axe.’  I wasn’t aware that the letter was real when I read it in Axeman’s Jazz, but thinking about it as I type, it only demonstrates the great job Celestin has done at combining fact and fiction.

We find ourselves accompanying three individuals in their separate hunts for the Axeman: Detective Michael Talbot – a pariah in his department for having outed a colleague’s link with the Mob; Luca Andrea – ex-detective and Talbot’s former mentor and just released from prison (yep, he was sent down by Talbot); and Ida, a secretary at the Pinkerton Detective Agency.  Ida is accompanied by a trumpet player of the name Lewis Armstrong, who we will all come to know as Louis Armstrong; another blurring of fact and fiction as Armstrong himself was born and raised in New Orleans.  The race is on to catch the Axeman before more people ‘get the axe’ (unless they ‘jazz it out’).

You’ll have guessed that I really enjoyed the novel.  Being a fan of jazz and crime novels, it was always going to be up my street.  I don’t know whether Celestin has been to New Orleans (I haven’t) but he invokes a sense of the place and its inhabitants.  You can almost feel the humidity in the air and sweat running down your back as you’re taken on a journey through the musical, bustling and dangerous streets of downtown New Orleans.

Celestin has also conjured up some great characters, especially in the form of Talbot and Andrea and when it’s quite easy with this kind of book for the characters to be two-dimensional.  The most interesting thing is the way each of our hunters go about their task, unravelling the mystery by pulling at different strands, ultimately revealing different layers of the puzzle (or carpet if I continue with the metaphor!).  At over 400 pages in length, Axeman was a surprisingly swift read and a real page-turner, which I highly recommend.