Map of Blue Book Balloon

7 May 2014

Reviews: "The Voices" and "The Axeman's Jazz".

I seem to be following a vein of horror reading at the moment, having been lucky enough to be sent a copy of FR Tallis’s new book “The Voices” by the publisher and to pick up a copy of “The Axeman’s Jazz” by Ray Celestin from Amazon Vine.  (Axeman isn’t really horror, it’s crime, but the steamy New Orleans setting and the slightly surreal nature of the plot give it elements of horror).

Both of those books are reviewed below: to complete the trinity, I’m now reading Sarah Pinborough’s “Murder’ – more horror! – which I’ll report on soon, but it is deliciously scary, sensual and creepy.

FR Tallis’s new ghost story The Voices is set during the notoriously long, hot summer of 1976 – when roads melted, reservoirs dried up and it was impossible to sleep at night under one’s nylon sheets.  Against this background – and amid rumbles of economic failure and national crisis – a small, apparently gilded group of trendy artists suffer their own, more private crisis.

There is Laura Norton, ex-model and trophy wife to the older Christopher. He was an avant-garde musician who found fortune (if not acclaim) writing music for films.  Christopher seems to be getting tired of Laura; she is wondering is there’s more to life than being Christopher’s wife and baby Faye’s mother, and beginning to discover feminism.

Then there’s Simon and Amanda.  Simon, who kept the faith and is now a “serious” modernist composer, a power at Radio 3. Amanda, who retains 60s-ish, hippy leanings. The group face a changing world which they don’t much comprehend: we see Christopher’s agent commend him for not getting involved with that obvious trainwreck of a film, Star Wars and – amusingly, after a scene in which Simon heaps praise on prog rock as a coming movement, there is an uncomprehending encounter with an early punk.

All this is helpful in setting a scene of unease and showing how fragile are the lives – lives of some comfort and ease – which the main characters share.  So that at first, the threat that begins to develop – whether in voices heard over the baby monitor by Laura, sounds recorded on tape by Christopher in his studio or the distress of Faye – is unfocussed, out of shot, so to speak.  Some of the elements may be conventional – the house which has stood empty for years, the strange collection of junk in the attic, the cryptic figure of a stage magician who seems to be important – but Tallis uses them skilfully.  By keeping them mostly in the background and making the centre of the story a very 70s one of infidelity, depression, sexism (that patronising doctor!) he’s able to produce real frights and shocks when the supernatural erupts, as it inevitably does. 

He also cleverly leaves just enough unexplained – we know what has happened, but not quite how or why, and a few mysteries remain.  What exactly does Sue know, and how?  What is the reason for Loxley’s sudden interest in Maybury?  Does somebody, somewhere understand more than poor Laura and Christopher?

This is a book that was hard to put down, great entertainment, with a great sense of reality.
The Axeman’s Jazz by Ray Celestin is  debut novel that completely beguiled me.  Set in New Orleans in 1919 it focuses on a real series of murders by a killer who terrorised the city that summer.

Assigned to investigate the killings is Lieutenant Michael Talbot of the city police. Talbot needs a success: he is unpopular in the force, after exposing a corruption racket years before, and his personal circumstances also make him vulnerable.

Also looking into the crimes are Luca d"Andrea, recently released from prison, and Ida, a young secretary at Pinkertons detective agency, who dreams of moving on detective work and hopes that cracking the Axeman case will make her name. Ida is assisted by her musician friend Lewis (later known as Louie) Armstrong.

The three investigations run in parallel, rarely intersecting (although there is some interaction between Luca, working for the all-powerful mafia, and Talbot). Celestin manages to tell three tales in one, as each of the three "detectives" finds a solution of sorts to the deaths - though only we, the readers of the book, get to see the full picture and understand how the various forces at play in New Orleans have combined to create the demon Axeman and set him loose.

It's a compelling story, blending racial prejudice (between white and black, Irish and Italian), political and police corruption, child trafficking and abuse, the legacy of slavery and the machinations of the Mob into a rich mixture of a book. Nobody in this book is wholly innocent - the crimes of the Axeman arise from a corrupt past, but they are manipulated and used by a corrupt present with which it's impossible not to collude. As the city fills with vagrant ex-soldiers back from the Great War, and Prohibition looms, there seems to be no way to release the building pressure that Celestin skilfully evokes. The city is subject to "a system of organised malice" with a degree of racial separation comparable to that of apartheid, and even though Armstrong is applauded wildly when playing in his band on the riverboats or in the clubs, he can be set upon the next night for being in the company of a white woman.

It's a great book, on many levels, and without being over didactic, draws some nice parallels between New Orleans then and now. Perhaps the only respect in which it didn't (perhaps) quite fulfil what I expected was that while the title of the book perhaps hints at some kind of musical aspect to the Axeman's terror, there isn't one. There is a sympathetic and mature exploration of the early life of Armstrong, including a marvellous sequence where his music really catches fire, and there is an episode where, in response to a taunting letter form the Axeman, the desperate citizens "jazz it up" en masse to avoid "getting the Axe". But the rhythm of the murders and the dance of the Axeman himself come from something else entirely, so the music isn't as central to the story as the title might suggest. But that is a small quibble really.

Perhaps the last word should go to the corrupt mayor, speaking after a hurricane has brought chaos to the city: "The Mayor finished his report by promising residents that this type of disaster would never befall New Orleans again". Indeed...

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