The Prohibition era is one of the most interesting parts of the 20th century. Gangsters like Al Capone were able to create an empire out of smuggling alcohol and earn a place in pop culture legend. Chicago became a haven for criminals of all kinds and the city is at the centre of Ray Celestin’s novel Dead Man’s Blues. Taking place during the 1920s, the book focuses on a brutal crime that involves the poisoning of several Chicago politicians. Jazz, murder and industrial innovation mingle together to create a story that pops with intrigue and excitement.
Dead Man’s Blues follows on from Celestin’s debut novel, The Axeman’s Jazz, with several characters returning. Detectives Michael Talbot and Ida Davis are working for the Pinkertons and looking into the case of a missing heiress, while famed musician Louis Armstrong has established himself as one of Chicago’s finest acts. New characters are introduced as well, such as the smooth-talking Dante Sanfelippo, hired by Capone to get to the bottom of the poisoning. Meanwhile, a dedicated crime-scene photographer called Jacob Russo is searching for answers when he comes across a terrible murder.
The book is split into different perspectives, with every character following a different thread that gradually weaves together into a full story. I found myself enjoying the Dante and Ida chapters the most because of their distinct personalities. Since the first book, Ida has grown into a capable detective, though there’s still much of the insecurity that comes with being a mixed race woman in a racist city. It doesn’t stop her from moving forward and trying to solve the crime that unravels before her. Celestin presents Ida as a strong character that continues to defy the odds despite the obstacles that she comes up against.
Dante is another intriguing character because of his back story. Having grown up in Chicago, Dante ran away to New York to escape a tragedy that he caused. Even though he’s a gangster, Dante’s nobility shines through, with him wanting to do the right thing and save the people that he cares about. . But for all his capability, Dante is hiding a secret that could get him killed by a number of people. His interactions with Capone are some of the best parts of the novel.
“Louis sensed they all shared the same longing – the tantalizing feeling that there was always something greater just out of sight, waiting to be realised. But it was the way they sought to alleviate the longing that was their biggest difference; Louis didn’t share the others’ ruthless individualism, even though it was Louis who was teaching the world how to solo. Things didn’t have to move forward via the clash and jostle of opposites; progress also occurred through texture. It was the decade of the self, of building your own melodic line to cut through the noise, and it was Louis who was teaching the world how to do it, but even he knew that solos were nothing without chorus.”
Jazz is a major theme of the novel, being used as a bridge between the black and white population of Chicago. Much of its effect is shown through the eyes of Louis Armstrong. The book is arranged to the structure of Armstrong’s ‘West End Blues,’ which I thought was a clever storytelling device. There’s a lot of musical language that coincides with the violence of Chicago. Industry is another important motif, with Chicago being built through conflict and the idea that progress could only be made by two people vying for power.
Dead Man’s Blues is a grand follow up to The Axeman’s Jazz and can be read as a stand alone story. Historians and crime fans will find plenty to love about it. You can buy it now on Amazon.