The lives of a jazz musician, a police detective, and a corporate executive intertwine in 1918-19 New Orleans.
As newspaper headlines shout of an ax murderer, the novel opens with four white cops hunting a black “highwayman.” But Detective Bill Bastrop finds his mind drifting to memories of World War I. Haunted by a moment of cowardice in wartime France, he seeks redemption in pursuing the Axman. When Isadore Zeno, a gifted black cornetist, first appears, he is stopped on the street by a white watchman and anxiously endures the third degree, thinking it’s “enraging to be scared all the time.” Zeno will use the public’s fear to spark interest in the new jazz music, getting a newspaper to publish a letter he writes as the Axman threatening mayhem for any household that doesn’t have jazz playing on a certain night. Beatrice Vizzini heads the construction company working on the Industrial Canal that will link Lake Pontchartrain and the Mississippi. She is tied to the Axman through her son, Giorgio, and the appearance of bodies and body parts in the canal dig’s mud. Rich (Odds Against Tomorrow, 2013, etc.) uses music, race, and historical details in ways that will likely spark comparisons to E.L. Doctorow’s multifaceted Ragtime. It’s a nicely paced detective thriller, clever on corporate corruption and police procedure. As a kind of jazz number, it establishes the Axman theme and then plays solos on it through major and minor characters. The literary excursion features a big metaphor in the Industrial Canal, which divided New Orleans—as the main characters all must face rifts in their personal lives.
Marked by offbeat humor and up-tempo writing, this is a more conventional outing for Rich than his first two novels and could well expand his audience.