A literary writer venturing into crime fiction for the first time. An alternative history featuring a heavy dose of First American vs African vs Caucasian ethnic struggle written by a white Englishman. A novel over 500 pages. All these are true, and all are reasons to think that Cahokia Jazz might fall flat on its face.
There’s also a lot to get to grips with upfront: two detectives, Native American Barrow and his sharp and wily senior partner Drummond. There’s a gruesome symbolic murder that requires investigation, and there’s the city of Cahokia in an alternative twenties North America, one in which money, religion and politics are all negotiated between the three races.
Spufford’s alternative history – based on the idea that the smallpox which wiped out 95% of the original inhabitants of North America arrived in a less venomous version, leading to a continuing mass population of Native Americans – is dense at first. Though he can’t avoid the narrative dumps completely, on the whole he shapes his narrative so that the reader finds out how and why Cahokia came to be the way it is, as the detectives search for the conspiracy that lies behind the murder of a civil servant.
It’s a mash-up of alternative history and noir thriller that takes time to emerge from the set-up, but once it does Spufford proves that he can not only world-build, he can deliver page-turning action sequences: a violent mass Klansmen rally and a mob shoot-out are both thrilling extended set pieces that dominate the second half of the novel.
Cahokia is a fully-realised city, from its trolley buses to its utility companies (these play a big role). Barrow is our impetuous but always moral guide in a week of investigation that takes him from hereditary civic leaders to speakeasies, slaughterhouses and slums. Music is a continual presence in this novel through Barrow’s other life as an accomplished jazz pianist. He’s always thinking about pieces, tapping them out on any flat surface, and joining various combos to sit in. This allows Spufford to get Drummond thinking about where his real loyalties and passions lie. The detective who is perhaps just filling in while he sorts his life out is a refreshing change from the Rankine-esque detective who has sacrificed everything for a small flat, a seat in local, and the job.
At times Spufford’s skill at keeping his various plates spinning is almost too much: there is a sense of a slight overpowering of the story by symbolism at the end. Barrow has to literally choose between getting on that midnight train to Georgia (not actually Georgia) with his jazz buddies, or following up that ‘just one more thing’ about the case. But these are minor gripes. Having given himself a hugely demanding task, this novel brings it off almost entirely successfully.
Review copy provided by NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
Length of Read:Long
Might appeal to people who enjoyed…
Though the Fatherland comparisons are apt, to me in its sense of different cities occupying the same urban space it recalls The City and the City, China Mieville’s masterpiece of overlapping realities. Also of course Chandler, Moseley, Ellroy and other writers of the noir city.
One thing you’ve learned
Spufford has now written non-fiction, historical fiction and now this. A seriously talented writer.