by Ray Celestin
The memories found their way into the music he was making now, all of them aligning. And a beautiful peace passed over him that seemed to last an eternity.
I have a deep-seated love for old Orleanais life in fiction and art and music. I also have a passing interest in old crime cases and the intricacies of crime, suspense and thriller writing. This all laced together nicely in the plot of Celestin’s The Axeman’s Jazz. I picked it up on a whim having previously read and heard about the case of the New Orleans axeman, but I had reservations. The case is still lacking a resolution, so I couldn’t help but wonder how the author planned to resolve the novel rather than just leave the narrative in a disappointingly open-ended lurch. Celestin did not struggle though, and the novel is so satisfyingly concluded that I was thrilled to learn of its sequel.
The narrative is immersive and timely. Not once did I feel like I was removed from the setting of 1919 New Orleans. The racial and ethnic divides of the city were powerful and relatable even from a modern perspective. The motif of “belonging versus not belonging” came to define the entire experience of the time. It shows us how ostracism and difference can either drive people to make positive change or conversely tear them apart. Race and difference are so poignantly integral to the novel that it is hard to avoid reviewing our own stereotypes and perceptions about our homes.
The characters took a while to grow on me and garner my interest equally to the setting of the novel, but I came to appreciate them all in their roles. Fortunately, I was not left ruing chapters dominated by certain characters as so often happens with novels that follow multiple individuals. The crossing of their paths was organic and believable but not excessive. They contrasted each other perfectly, and their differing approaches to solving the crime worked perfectly. The slow diffusion of clues was a risk, but one well taken as the identity of the axeman was still as surprising as I had wanted it to be.
My only complaint about the novel is it’s over-explanation of the subtleties of its meaning. There are far too many points at which the meaning of a word or look between characters is clear, but Celestin continues on to explain that meaning regardless. It is as if, as a reader, I wasn’t trusted to grasp the nuances of the text. Though the narrative was rich with meaning and metaphor, it too often felt like I was being clubbed across the head with exposition.
Despite this, I could not have been more pleased with this book. The exciting cocktail of history, reality, suspense and fiction casts a brave and interesting telling of past events. No loose ends are left unresolved, for which I owe Celestin my own sanity.