The Axeman, by Ray Celestin

The Axeman
The Axeman

Between May 1918 and October 1919, a series of horrific murders terrorized New Orleans. The Axeman murders were never solved. Ray Celestin’s novel, The Axeman, offers a potential explanation for the gory deaths of up to twelve people. I leapt at the chance to read this book because one of my favorite podcasts, Stuff You Missed in History Class, did a two-part episode and I wanted to learn more. Celestin’s novel offers a solution to the almost 100-year-old mystery that I never expected.

The Axeman is written unlike any other mystery I’ve read. There are three investigators. Michael Talbot, a detective with the New Orleans Police Department, is the most traditional. The second detective, Luca d’Andrea, is a disgraced former NOPD detective who works for the mafia. The city’s don has ordered him to find the Axeman because the murders of Italians in the city is making the famiglia look bad. Then there is Ida Davis. Ida works as a secretary for the last Pinkerton detective in New Orleans. Because her boss is a hopeless drunk and Ida wants to advance, she decides to solve the Axeman murders herself. She dragoons her friend, jazz legend Louis Armstrong, into helping her. Celestin’s novel jumps between the three as they close in on the Axeman and the conspiracy behind his grisly acts. Curiously, the three never meet or coordinate their efforts. It’s an interesting approach, but it was hard to see how the facts and evidence all tied together.

At times, The Axeman reads like an encyclopedia of post-World War I New Orleans. Long paragraphs explain the history of Storyville and the voodoo practitioners, the racial and class divisions in the city, Louis Armstong’s early biography and musical style, and the mafia. Celestin clearly did a lot of research for this novel. Coupled with the trio detectives, however, it meant there was just that much more information to try and take on board. This is the sort of novel that makes one feel like one ought to be taking notes for a later exam.

I hate to say it, because the book had a lot of great scenes, but The Axeman didn’t work for me. I think it was Celestin’s solution that bothered me most. What I know about the murders comes from those episodes of Stuff You Missed in History Class and other early serial killings. While Celestin offers a plausible explanation, it didn’t jibe with what I thought happened. I was expecting a lot more psychological profiling (by another name, of course) and a lot less conspiracy. I probably shouldn’t be surprised. The novel is set in New Orleans, after all.

Postcard of Canal Street, New Orleans, c. 1919

The other problem I had was that the novel splits the reader’s attention between three detectives. All are interesting. All of them would make great leads on their own. But it seemed like I would be yanked away from one detective just as I would start to get invested in them. I wanted to know more about Michael’s black wife and how they made their relationship work in a New Orleans that would actually prosecute interracial marriages. I wanted to know how Ida came to want to be a detective and how she became such a keen investigator. And I really wanted to know more about Luca and how he was wrestling with his role as mafioso while falling in love with a voodoienne. 

The Axeman cannot stand up under the weight of its structure. This is particularly frustrating, because the characterization shows that Celestin has writing chops. At more than 400 pages, there’s not enough room for all this story is trying to do. Perhaps my biggest problem with this book is that I feel the author needed more input from outside readers or editors, or just more time to evaluate the organization.

I received a free copy of this ebook from NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review. It will be released 1 September 2015.

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