Hell, March 13, 1919
They have never caught me and they never will. They have never seen me, for I am invisible, even as the ether that surrounds your earth. I am not a human being, but a spirit and a demon from the hottest hell. I am what you Orleanians and your foolish police call the Axeman.
Ray Celestin’s debut novel, The Axeman’s Jazz, begins with a macabre letter that sets the tone for the rest of the book. The story is set in New Orleans in 1919 and is built around the real life case of the Axeman. The letter was written by the real killer, making the novel even more intriguing.
The Axeman’s Jazz focuses on three characters: Detective Michael Talbot, a corrupt cop called Luca d’Andrea and a secretary called Ida. All three are investigating the Axeman and it takes them on a journey into darkness. Each character is well-written and believable, with their own motivations. Michael is the former protégé of d’Andrea who exposed his ties to the Mafia and sent him to prison. Ida is a young woman of mixed heritage who is caught between the white world of privilege and a history of black slavery.
Of the three, I found Ida the most appealing because of her determination. Despite the constant racism and violence she comes across, she never loses sight of her goal to stop the Axeman.
Celestin paints a sordid and sultry picture of New Orleans. From the bordellos of Storyville, to the poverty of Back O’ Town, you feel as if you’re transported to the city. His attention to detail is impressive, weaving in a vivid image of what New Orleans was like after WW1. The city takes on a life of its own.
Jazz is another major theme of the novel. The Axeman makes a wager that if New Orleans is filled with jazz music for one night then he would stop killing. Music is funneled through the pages, with a focus on a young Jazz musician called Louis Armstrong.
Michael, Luca and Ida all find what they’re looking for by the end of the book. But there’s a feeling that the Axeman has taken something from them all.
The Axeman’s Jazz is an engrossing crime thriller that has a touch of the supernatural to it. You can also read Celstin’s follow up called Deadman’s Blues.