The Axeman's Jazz by Ray Celestin

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The Axeman's Jazz by Ray Celestin

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Category: Crime (Historical)
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Nikki Thompson
Reviewed by Nikki Thompson
Summary: A bold, atmospheric debut novel from an accomplished writer.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 421 Date: May 2014
Publisher: Mantle
ISBN: 978-1-4472-5886-5

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Shortlisted for the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year Award 2015

Based on a true story, The Axeman's Jazz is scriptwriter Ray Celestin's debut novel. It tells of a serial killer in New Orleans in 1919 - the Axeman - who torments the city and has everyone talking; it seems that everyone has their theories and yet no meaningful leads are presenting themselves, as the police and citizens of New Orleans begin to despair of ever catching the killer.

Masterfully blending fact and fiction, the book starts with a transcript of an original letter written to the citizens of New Orleans by the Axeman, inviting them all to play by his rules and escape further punishment by playing jazz in their homes. The inclusion of this chilling letter sets the tone perfectly for the rest of the book which is tightly wound and highly evocative of both the era and the place. Jazz and corruption filter through the pages to keep the reader in an almost constant state of unease.

Celestin's scriptwriting background means that he uses words expertly to move the story along and provide a low-level thrum of racial tension, mob rule and hidden agendas that create a menacing undertone. The writing is sharp and sparing and - a few slightly distracting writing quirks aside - evokes the heat of the Deep South and its inhabitants beautifully. As a debut novelist, the temptation to revert to type could be strong. However, Celestin does not give in and Ida and Lewis especially ('Lewis' being Louis Armstrong as a young man) are engaging characters that enhance and add a further layer to the storyline. As the chapters switch between the different characters in the book, you are able to really get to know them and as a result, each character helps to develop the story further, even those that are not necessarily 'main' characters.

The book is peppered with fleeting references to famous songs and people. For those that do like jazz, the references are enjoyable as landmarks of the era and provide familiar names and faces as part of fact/fiction blend. Again, Celestin has struck a delicate balance between appealing to those who love jazz and those who know nothing about it, and as such the book provides something for everyone.

While I enjoy historical fiction, I have never been a fan of crime writing. However, the two genres blend so well that you feel as if you could be reading a book of either genre, which is not an easy task to pull off. As mentioned before, there are a couple of odd habits that manifest themselves in Celestin's writing (hyphenated phrasing litters the pages of the first few chapters, to the point of distraction), which could do with tighter editing and a little more leniency from the writer.

The book is published by the Mantle arm of Pan Macmillan, who also publish C J Sansom - a master of historical crime writing, albeit in a rather different era - which lends further credibility to Celestin as a worthy addition to the historical crime genre.

If you would like to try something by Sansom the first Shardlake novel is Dissolution.

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Buy The Axeman's Jazz by Ray Celestin at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Axeman's Jazz by Ray Celestin at


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