Archive for the ‘Conor Brady’ Category

It is 1919 New Orleans and a serial killer, nicknamed the Axeman because of his Axemanmodus 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 LouisArmstrongdon’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.

RedStormThe 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. AJuneOfOrdinaryMurdersThe 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.

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June 1887 was one of the hottest and driest on record. AJuneOfOrdinaryMurdersNo breeze. No rain. Excessive heat. The city of Dublin was abuzz with activity, preparing for Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee Celebration and a visit by Princes Albert Victor and George. The Dublin police force was busy making sure the city was secure, with rarely a man to spare. It was Detective Sergeant Joe Swallow of the Dublin Metropolitan Police G-Division who, on Friday, June 17, caught the murder that took place in Chapelizod Gate. a young man in his twenties along side a young boy aged approximately 8-9 years old. They were shot at close range and their faces were marred to delay identity. With no identifying papers, identification could takes weeks.

It was three days later, on Monday, June 20, that a young girl, aged approximately 20 was found under a barge in the locks in the Grand Canal. Her head was bashed in and she was virtually unrecognizable. Could the three murders be related? Having botched a previous murder investigation, Swallow needs a quick and satisfactory conclusion to these murders. But of course, he is blocked on multiple fronts.

Brady’s debut novel is one of the best mysteries I’ve read this year. A combination of murder mystery and historical novel, he provides a reasonable explanation of the political situation in Dublin at the time…many Dubliners’ dissatisfaction with the Queen, the residue of the famine 40 years previous still impacting life in Ireland, the tensions between landowner and tenant farmer.

The 1880s also brought with it the beginnings of forensic investigation. There were experiments with facial reconstruction based on facial bones and muscles. Investigative technicians were able to determine whether a specific bullet came from a specific gun based on the grooves in the bullet. And the uniqueness of fingerprints was being researched. Crime scenes must be kept pure. (An early version of CSI?) Brady brings all of these into play in A June of Ordinary Murders.

He makes the extreme heat and discomfort palpable to the readers. Readers will feel like they are alongside Swallow, his ‘book man” Mossop (think Harry Bosch’s murder book), and fellow officers. Swallow is a mystery lover’s policeman. The law is the law and it must be obeyed, but he’ll stretch the limits of the law in order to get his man (and suffer the consequences…which we may see, if there’s a sequel, which I certainly hope there is). A June of Ordinary Murders was quite the satisfying read. I highly recommend it for all mystery lovers.

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