Fresh Blood

Name: Ray Celestin

Title of Book: The Axeman's Jazz

'As with a fine Bourbon, this novel is one to savour and relish at a leisurely pace.'

It is 1919 and New Orleans is under the threat of a killer who many say is no more than the Devil himself, released from Hell to wreak his own kind of justice. People whisper that this killer can walk through walls, get in to people’s houses without disturbing windows or needs to open locked doors before delivering a deadly blow of his axe to their heads. His moniker is a Tarot card placed in the crevice where his axe fell, leading to murmurs of ‘Voodoo’ practices.

Three people are determined to find this bizarre killer. Detective Lieutenant Michael Talbot is heading the investigation and already feels he is chasing after nothing more than smoke and mirrors. Talbot has his own secrets and knows that many people, good or ill are keeping a close eye on him. Some want him to succeed and others would like nothing better than to see him fail after what he did to one of their own.

Luca d’Andrea is fresh out of prison after serving his sentence. His crime was to be a bent cop, in the pay of the Mafioso. And the man who betrayed him was his protégé, Michael Talbot. Now d’Andrea is free but very soon working for his old employers to find out who is killing Italians in New Orleans. Having lost all his money, he can’t afford to upset the Mafioso and so he decides to accept one more job before returning back to Italy.

Ida has dreams of bettering herself. Bored at Pinkerton’s Detective Agency she enlists the help of her friend, the black musician, Lewis Armstrong to check out some leads about the Axeman murders. As they dig deeper they soon realise they may well have got in over their heads in a case that is far reaching than they could ever have imagined.

Everything comes to a head on a wet evening when a storm hits New Orleans and the river bursts its banks. Nature turns against a city in turmoil and is ready to wipe the slate clean.

‘The Axeman’s Jazz’ is a very dense novel and certainly cannot be rushed. You feel that Celestin has taken a great deal of time to set the scene and New Orleans certainly came alive for me, although there were times when I felt I was being given a little too much information. For me, this took away rather than added to the sense of New Orleans that the author was trying to obtain.

The segregation of different races and cultures was quite shocking to read about. Celestin utilises the dialogue of those days and uses some derogatory words that would have been liberally used back then. It does add to the flavour of those times but may jar with some readers.

Despite his failings, I found myself engaging the most with d’Andrea out of the three protagonists. Freshly out of prison he is a complex man who, unexpectedly during his investigation, finds some inner peace and joy. Is it to last? You always find that with men such as d’Andrea peace never lasts long when you have as many skeletons in his closet as this man. The strand of the investigation I least engaged with was Ida’s. I can’t explain why although I felt her part of the investigation wasn’t as ‘controlled’ as the other two strands. With her friend, Lewis Armstrong it gives Celestin a good hook to thread the ‘Jazz’ theme throughout his story allowing the novel its own soundtrack.

‘The Axeman’s Jazz’ is truly an original novel and one that needs time and dedication which will reward you in the long run. As with a fine Bourbon, this novel is one to savour and relish at a leisurely pace.

Reviewed by: C.S.

CrimeSquad Rating

Fresh Blood Questionnaire

1) ‘The Axeman’s Jazz’ is loosely based on a real events between 1918 and 1919. Could you give us a little history of the case?
Sure. There were a series of killings in New Orleans between 1918-1919 by a murderer dubbed, ‘The Axeman’. The first few attacks were all quite similar – someone was breaking into the homes of Italian grocers in the Little Italy section of the city and killing people in their beds as they slept. As the name would suggest, he was attacking them with an axe. The really interesting thing though, is right in the middle of the attacks, someone sent a letter to the local newspaper claiming to be the Axeman, and telling the city that the following Tuesday night, he would attack the city once more but would spare anyone who was somewhere where a jazz band was performing. That night is remembered as being a particularly legendary party night in New Orleans.
2) What was it that inspired you to construct your novel around this case?
The case itself was really interesting partly because the killer was never caught, so he has that same sense of mystery like Jack the Ripper and other unsolved cases. Also, it was such a bizarre crime spree, and it was capped off with this truly unhinged letter. The other thing that interested me about the case was how it reflected the racial tensions of the time - people then, as now, were very quick to jump to conclusions, often based on their racial fears. And lastly and most importantly, the case gave me an excuse to write about the New Orleans of the time, which fascinated me.
3) How much research did you have to do before starting ‘The Axeman’s Jazz’?
It was weird because it was my first novel and I started it years ago and I didn’t have a clue what I was doing. So I did hardly any research before starting the first draft. I read some true crime accounts of the attacks, one of Louis Armstrong’s autobiographies and Thomas Brothers’ ‘Louis Armstrong’s New Orleans’ (which is incredibly well-written and researched). And I think that was it. But then over the years as I worked on the subsequent drafts, I was doing more in-depth reading and I was constantly having to change bits of the story as they didn’t make sense, and trying to find a way of putting in all the new facts I had found that I thought were interesting. It was a bit of a stupid way of working, but the good point was I dove right in and got the story down without getting caught up in research. So it was story first, research later.
4) You give great detail on the divisions in New Orleans with many different races and nationalities staking their claim in different areas of the city. It feels like a very potent mix of cultures that threatened to explode. Did you enjoy investigating the diverse fabric of this city and was there enough detail for several novels?
Yes, looking into the mix of cultures and how that mix was so segregated was really interesting. In many ways it has parallels to a modern multi-cultural society, but in other ways it was so vastly different. The comparisons and contrasts is what made it so fascinating. There is definitely a lot of material there for a series of books, and a few authors have done just this – David Fulmer’s ‘Valentin St. Cyr’ series springs to mind.
5) In your book New Orleans is like one of the cast of characters. A city built on marshland, six feet below sea level and constantly embattled by nature by the wildlife surrounding it and the hurricanes that visit every two years. You are clearly taken by the city. What is it about New Orleans that fascinates you?
Pretty much everything about it. One of its nicknames is ‘The most un-American of American cities’ and I think that sums it up really well – both the city and how the city likes to portray itself. For a start, New Orleans was never ruled by the British – it went straight from French to American rule. Then it is close to the Caribbean, so it has the exoticism of a tropical port to it. Then it blurs racial boundaries and has a wonderful mix of cultures, and that’s all before you get to the music, drink and food.
6) There is a line quote from a Louis Armstrong song at the beginning of the book. Lewis Armstrong features in your book who is a musician. Is this homage to the great ‘Satchmo’ himself?
Yes, the Lewis character is Louis Armstrong. I changed the spelling of the name for a couple of reasons. Firstly, as a distancing device for the readers, and second because his name back then was pronounced Lew-iss and not Lou-ey. It was only years later that the pronunciation of his name changed. I think Louis himself always pronounced it Lew-iss (as he does on the 1964 single ‘Hello, Dolly!’). It might not seem much but it was a big deal back then in New Orleans. Lou-ey was the French pronunciation and for an African-American in Louisiana this hinted at social climbing and putting on airs and graces (something Louis was not a fan of). There is even a quote from Louis’s mother expressing her disdain at the fact that people pronounced his name in the French style. I guess the change probably happened because it’s easier to say Lou-ey than Lew-iss.
7) Detective Talbot, Luca D’Andrea and Ida are the three main threads in your novel and are all in some way ‘damaged goods’. What was it about these three that made you want to give them their own voice?
They kind of evolved out of the needs of the story. I wanted the characters to look at the crimes from different points of view, so the idea of having a policeman, a Mafioso, and a private detective all looking for the same killer seemed like an interesting way to do that. I guess they are all damaged. Talbot and Ida are damaged by the racism of the society, and Luca by the demons of his own past.
8) What are you working on now? Will your next novel be in the same time period and/or based in New Orleans?
The next novel is a sequel, but its set in Chicago in the 1920s – at the height of the jazz age. A few of the characters from the first book are in it and some new ones too. It is set at a time when Louis worked in one of Al Capone’s Chicago nightclubs, so the infamous gangster makes an appearance too.
9) What do you look for when you pick up a book to read?
It depends what mood I’m in. Sometimes, pure escapism, sometimes something challenging, and then there are books that do both at the same time.
10) What would you say are the top three crime novels that have made a lasting impression on you?
Although they are not novels, the Sherlock Holmes stories have had the biggest influence on me, as those were the first adult books I read as a child, and they were the ones that got me hooked on the detective genre.

As for novels, three crime novels had a huge influence on my writing, and ‘The Axeman’s Jazz’ in particular;

‘L.A. Confidential’ by James Ellroy for its plot;

‘An Instance of the Fingerpost’ by Iain Pears, for its structure; and

‘The Yiddish Policeman’s Union’ by Michael Chabon, for its prose and style.