It is 1919 New Orleans and a serial killer, nicknamed the Axeman because of his modus operandi, is on the loose. Pressure is mounting for his/her capture. There are three separate investigations taking place. The first is run by the police, who tapped Detective Lieutenant Michael Talbot, a disliked, expendable police officer to lead the investigation. The second is orchestrated by Ida Davis. Davis, a Negro who can pass for white, is bored being a secretary at Pinkerton’s National Detective Agency so she begins to put bits of information together to catch a killer. The third is being conducted by Luca D’Andrea, formerly Talbot’s police mentor until Talbot testified against him because of his mafia connections. Just released after serving five years at Angola prison, Luca is investigating the murders at the behest of mafia boss Carlo Matranga, in return (theoretically) for Luca’s return passage home to his native Italy. It seems that the serial killer has been targeting Italians which is bad for Carlo’s protection business.
Based on a real unsolved case from the era (the ‘Axeman’ killed six people from 1918 through 1919), Ray Celestin’s debut novel, The Axeman, is a ‘literary’ mystery. That’s not to say that there’s no action in the book. There’s quite a bit but character development and setting are equally as important as plot and action.
Readers will be immersed in early 20th century New Orleans. While I always thought that New Orleans, a melting pot of ethnicity and race, was a racially progressive city and in many ways it was, segregation and bigotry still abounded. The fact that Talbot is married to a Black woman (they had to go out of state in order to get married) is shoved in his face when necessary. The rivers overflowed their banks and the levees, drowning the city on occasion. Prohibition was soon to begin, which was not well accepted in a city that loves its drink. There were the rich and the poor, with not much in between. There was still a widespread belief in witchcraft and the bayou was a dangerous and mysterious place where people disappear, either on purpose or by accident.
Ida Davis’ best friend and confidant is fledgling musician Louis Armstrong and while I typically don’t like when real famous people are brought into fiction, in this particular instance it worked quite well. It allowed Celestin to describe the music of the times and also work that into the Axeman murders. Readers will get an interesting history lesson, such as how Storyville got its name and why it was supposedly dismantled.
The Axeman brings to mind two very disparate books. The first is The Red Storm: A Mystery by Grant Bywaters that takes place in New Orleans in the late 1930s. Although the writing is more akin to pulp mystery fiction of that decade, the feeling of the book and its setting is very similar and New Orleanian’s attitudes towards Blacks had changed little in the two decades separating the stories. The other book is A June of Ordinary Murders by Conor Brady. Although this book takes place in Ireland, it is the literary style and the pressure to solve both cases that made me think of it.
I rarely say this but I love the cover of The Axeman. The New Orleans architecture is so distinctive and it comes through on the book cover.
In A Conversation With the Author at the end of the book, Celestin says he is working on a sequel. I, for one, am anxiously awaiting its release. In the meantime pick up The Axeman or A June of Ordinary Murders.