“Hey, Michael, you ain’t never gonna find the Axeman. Ya chasing a ghost.”
That quote is attributed to one Silvestro “Sam” Carolla, who in 1919 was the number-two Mafioso in New Orleans. It’s addressed to Detective Lieutenant Michael Talbot, the man assigned—in Ray Celestin’s prodigiously atmospheric new historical thriller, The Axeman—to find and end the career of a serial killer terrorizing the Big Easy. A killer who slays Italian grocers with axes…and then vanishes into the night.
As anyone who’s conversant in New Orleans history, or has read Gary Krist’s excellent 2014 nonfiction work, Empire of Sin, could surely tell you, the Axeman was a real murderer, who prematurely ended the lives of at least half a dozen people between May 1918 and October 1919. There were numerous theories promulgated as to who was behind those atrocities and who benefited most from them, but the butcher himself (“a slinking agent of the devil at 3 a.m.,” as the Times-Picayune newspaper called the Axeman) was never identified, much less captured or prosecuted. In a place as superstitious as Louisiana’s largest city, the notion of the Axeman being a phantom, an ethereal horror too fleeting to grasp, seemed not far beyond the realm of possibility.
Like other faceless, real-life multiple murderers of the last century and a half—whether it be London’s Jack the Ripper, Austin, Texas’ Servant Girl Annihilator or the Zodiac Killer in San Francisco—the Axeman fairly invites fiction writers to fill his mystery with their own imaginative turns. Celestin, a British film and TV script writer, accomplishes it with somewhat greater intricacy and drama than is common.
In The Axeman (published last year in the U.K. as The Axeman’s Jazz, which was also the title of a 1991 Julie Smith novel that borrowed from the same nightmarish source material), Celestin presents a trio of crime solvers, all of whom approach the 1918-1919 serial homicides from different angles. Michael Talbot is a smallpox-scarred 20-year veteran of the New Orleans police force with an uncertain future. He’s already shunned by his fellow cops, as a consequence of his having testified against a onetime mentor, a Mafia-connected detective named Luca D’Andrea. But Talbot’s status is further imperiled by his secret, unconventional lifestyle, one that could only cause him trouble in the prejudiced South. Meanwhile, D’Andrea, now in his early 50s, has just been released from the brutal Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, after serving five years for his transgressions. Needing money, he agrees to take a job from Carlo Matranga, the octogenarian head of New Orleans’ principal Mafia (or Black Hand) crime family, who wants this practiced former sleuth to track down and eliminate the Axeman himself; it seems the killer has laced terror throughout the city’s Italian community and given police an excuse to shutter some of Matranga’s lucrative operations. Finally, there’s Ida Davis, an attractive young black woman, “light-skinned enough to pass for white,” who works as a clerk/receptionist in the local bureau of the Pinkerton National Detective Agency. Ida has bigger dreams, though. A diligent reader of Sherlock Holmes yarns, she wants to become a Pinkerton field agent, and figures that helping to bring down the Axeman will impress if not her habitually drunken Creole boss, then perhaps his superiors.
Celestin wastes no time pitching readers into the Axeman investigation, complete with political connivances, surreptitious informers, gang rivalries and wild reports of suspicious characters abroad at the time of the attacks. (“People wrote in to say they had seen Negro men flying through windows, eight-foot-tall Indians, Slavs with horned heads, dwarves, Chinamen, Creoles who disappeared in a puff of smoke, or banshees fluttering between rooftops.”) There’s talk that the assassin is actually more than one person; that he’s black; that he’s Italian; that he might’ve begun his rampage long before 1918; and that he could be one of the shockingly many city residents once relegated to the state insane asylum. (“Someone once told [Talbot] New Orleans was the kind of city that made gluttons out of monks, and murderers out of saints, and now he wondered if it wasn’t also a place that made lunatics out of the sane.”) The crime scenes—with their bloody axes, suggestive tarot cards left behind and doors locked from the outside—attest to the Axeman’s interest both in confusing police and inciting alarm in the city’s populous. While Talbot and a wannabe young Irish protégé scour police files for clues to the murderer’s history, D’Andrea probes the tarot connection with aid from an inscrutable Creole woman, Simone, who’s said to be a voodoo priestess. For her part, Ida Davis follows clues suggesting a connection between these killings and some very underhanded business dealings. When she needs muscled back-up, she turns to an equally young, “chubby-face” black horn player known as Lil’ Lewis Armstrong, who was a former student of her music-teacher father (and, in 1919, was still many years away from changing the pronunciation of his first name to Louey and becoming one of the 20th century’s most famous jazz trumpeters).
Armstrong isn’t the only historical figure recruited into this tale; Sam Carolla, Carlo Matranga and New Orleans Mayor Martin Behrman are also drawn from fact. But Celestin lavishes greater attention on the future “Satchmo” than he does on the rest, exploring the musician’s troubled childhood and marital woes. He’s similarly generous in building up the back stories and psychological profiles of his lead fictional players. As enthralling as the Axeman case can be, especially when the butcher sends a letter to the Times-Picayune, promising that anyone playing jazz music on a certain night will be safe from his cutting-edge predations, it’s the other characters in these pages who really command your attention.
And New Orleans becomes as much a character here as any other.
In 1919 the Crescent City was undergoing significant changes. World War I had concluded the year before, and soldiers who landed back in town found the economy in a slump and jobs hard to win. One of New Orleans’ principal entertainment locales, Storyville, the city’s legalized red-light district, adjacent to the French Quarter, had been closed in 1917 by demand of the U.S. military (which called it a “bad influence”), and Prohibition was on the horizon in January 1920, meaning that the alcoholic beverages so popular in the town’s cabarets and honky-tonks would have to be dispensed more surreptitiously (it’s not as if the Big Easy planned to give them up entirely). The cultural gumbo that would become jazz was still being formulated, but if the Axeman himself had taken a shine to the musical genre, then it had bright prospects. (A special jazz tune was even composed in the killer’s “honor.”)
Celestin says he did “lots of research” before composing his novel, and it shows in scenes such as this one, in which a sleep-deprived Ida crosses the local dockyards:
The workers were Negroes for the most part, roustabouts who couldn’t read or write, so the movement of cargo was arranged by the use of a system of colored flags, hundreds of which, in myriad schemes and colors, fluttered over the cargo areas, ships’ hulls, train wagons and wharves, and lent the docks a festive, jaunty air. The workers were anything but: they were hard, taciturn and weather-beaten men, but on seeing Ida some of them changed their demeanor, declaring undying love for her with grins and elbows in their coworkers’ ribs. Ida ignored them and bumped past knots of businessmen and shipping clerks with ink-stained fingers, who were attempting to impose some kind of order on the chaos, and she staggered past bleary-eyed passengers from Liverpool, Lisbon and Le Havre disgorged by the giant transatlantic ocean liners that brooded silently in their berths. She fell in with the flow of people, aimlessly pushed along the wharves, only hearing vaguely the blasts of ships’ whistles, the gull squawks, the crash of machinery, the slap of the yellow river against the banks and the constant work-songs of the men.
Author Celestin plays fast and loose with some of the Axeman case specifics, embellishing history with elements that lend the sinister affair a more exotic flavor. His solution to the mystery of the murderer’s identity and motive—revealed amid a furious storm that bears marked resemblance to Hurricane Katrina (which clobbered New Orleans 10 years ago this month)—is fully a product of his fertile imagination. Yet the sequence of events that lead to this novel’s conclusion, and the ways in which his three investigators each reveal distinct aspects of it, without sharing their information and learning the complete story, boasts at least the air of authenticity. That’s a remarkable accomplishment, particularly in a first novel, and it explains why Celestin’s book captured the prestigious John Creasey (New Blood) Dagger in 2014. We can only hope he achieves the same level of suspense and character exploration in his sequel, which he says will find Talbot, Ida and Armstrong in Al Capone’s Chicago of the 1920s.