Wednesday, 11 November 2015

Book of the Month - The Axeman's Jazz

The Axeman's Jazz, by newcomer Ray Celestin, is a crime novel set in New Orleans in 1919. Given my interest in the Big Easy between the wars, as I continue to run a Deadlands Noir campaign there, this was a natural for me to pick up and read.

The tale is inspired by the real life murders of the so-called Axeman in New Orleans straight after the end of the First World War. The time is one where veterans are returning from a conflict abroad, and Prohibition looms on the horizon. Louisiana is a state with powerful racial divisions, where many people of mixed background struggle to make their way in society. At the same time, it is a place where musicians in particular can earn a good living, regardless of colour. New Orleans is still considered by the characters in the book as more tolerant than some of the other southern states.

While the Axeman murders were real, he was never caught, despite even leaving a letter for the police. The killer also inspired a jazz tune, by Joseph John Davilla, after he left a letter at one crime scene claiming that locals would only be safe "if a jazz band is in full swing at the time I have just mentioned." This apparently created one of the biggest party nights in the history of the city as fearful citizens took this as an opportunity to get together to drink and dance.

The book looks at the case from three perspectives - that of a homicide detective assigned to the case, his former colleague - a bent cop who has just been released from prison up state, and finally a secretary working at the Pinkerton detective agency who decides to do some investigation of her own. Each approaches the killings from a different point of view, and uncovers facets of the case known only to them. Celestin obviously introduces his own take on the identity of the killer and why the victims were slain.

The plot is a complex one - because of the different lines of investigation, I did find myself flipping back and forth through the book, as the writer often leaves a character alone for three or four chapters, then jumps back to them. In addition, the real-life personality of Lewis Armstrong is introduced as a friend of Ida Davis, the Pinkerton secretary, who aids her in her search for the Axeman. His is a fourth perspective. At twenty years old, Armstrong was just getting established in 1919, and left New Orleans for Chicago a couple of years later.

The book was useful for me in helping to flesh out the character of the Big Easy at this time in its history. It was certainly a melting pot of races and cultures unlike any other in the United States, and both tolerant and intolerant in its own way. Many different communities rubbed shoulders, including the French Creoles and the newcomers like the Irish and Italians. In my Deadlands game I wondered whether I was over-egging the power and prevalence of the Black Hand Sicilian crime syndicate, or the emphasis they placed on Sicilian lineage for promotion to their highest ranks, but I think I have got it just about right. Their love of restaurants and barber shops as places for their foot soldiers to hang out in is right on the mark.

The Axeman's Jazz is a violent saga of carnage, exploitation and atrocity, with the titular Axeman just one of the personalities up to his elbows in gore. At one stage, for example, police torture a suspect to death in an old lunatic asylum and then incinerate his body, while at another a character is beaten to a pulp by a man he wrongly convicted. There is also a brutal gun battle between the mob and a pair of cops that is very reminiscent of the climax of LA Confidential. It is pretty visceral stuff.

I'm hoping to be returning to my New Orleans campaign soon, and I feel this novel has done much to help me with additional background colour and ideas. The city certainly sounds like an interesting place for RPGs and one I hope to visit someday in real life and perhaps in gaming (e.g. with Trail of Cthulhu).

Ironically, the last few chapters of The Axeman's Jazz take place during a freak storm which flooded large parts of the city with considerable loss of live, as levees intended to protect the town collapsed. At the time then mayor Martin Behrman told citizens that, thanks to his program of repairs and further infrastructure, this sort of disaster would never befall New Orleans again!

1 comment:

  1. Finding good quality fiction / TV set in the period and setting for one's game is always a good thing! Glad it has helped reinforce your sense of direction with the characterisation and helped you flesh out the city. :)