Wednesday, September 09, 2015

Ray Celestin, THE AXEMAN: New Orleans Serial Murder, Lively Crime Fiction

The surge of "imports" in today's mystery and crime fiction is bringing wonderful work to American readers, without the necessity of crossing any oceans. It's almost taken for granted now that the most captivating of Scandinavian, French, and Italian crime fiction will be quickly translated to English and in our hands within a year or sooner -- sometimes even simultaneously with European publication. An odd twist to this situation is the growing number of English, Scottish, and Irish (here I just mean Irish setting, English language) mysteries that ought to be released at the same time in both the United Kingdom and the United States, since the language is close enough to being the same ... but somehow the publishers are not always doing this. I've reviewed several authors' works recently that face a delay of one to three years before jumping the Atlantic to America.

Of all of them, THE AXEMAN by Ray Celestin may be one of the most frustrating in terms of delay, title, and "frills." As the Dutch blogger at A Fantastical Librarian notes, there's very little available online about the author ... and the information on the book, a debut mystery, is mightily confused by its two titles: originally The Axeman's Jazz  and now THE AXEMAN. The longer version is also the title of a Julie Smith book, so that may explain the switch -- but even so, if you go looking for reviews and articles on the book, you'll find most of them appended to the longer title anyway.

That said, for a pleasant interview with author Ray Celestin, check out the already-mentioned librarian blog, linked here. And now for the book itself:

THE AXEMAN opens with a Prologue from the point of view of an alcohol-soaked journalist in May 1919 in New Orleans, John Riley, who stumbles on a letter from a self-proclaimed serial killer, in his newspaper's heap of letters to the editor. The narrative then leaps back a month, to a funeral procession where young Lewis Armstrong adds his trumpet work to the music. Yes, that Lewis ... the one who'd later be Louis. Then it jumps to Detective Lieutenant Michael Talbot, inspecting the crime scene of yet another killing by the Axeman, whose gruesome violence is increasing and now includes five occasions. And the third point of view, the one that will become compelling, intimate, and risk-taking, is that of Luca D'Andrea, a newly released convict -- caught between a corrupt police force and the local gangsters. It's Luca's gaze that will become ours, as he walks from where he spent his five-year sentence, toward the city that is his. Or maybe that owns him.
Luca hadn't been expecting his return to New Orleans to be an easy experience. He knew the city was no paradise; it was violent and unforgiving, awash with criminals and immigrant communities that treated one another with hostility and suspicion. But it was also a city with a beguiling energy to it, a bright and opulent charm. For all its segregation and spite, its shabby streets and faded glory, it was easy to become bewitched by the city of New Orleans. And so the whole time Luca was in Angola he couldn't help feeling that when he returned, he would be entering a better world. That the slime of the prison life would wash off him like some kind of amniotic fluid. But now, as he looked at [inquiring reporter] Riley, he wondered if he wasn't just exchanging one kind of slime for another.
Luca and Lewis will connect; mysterious woman and their effects play a role in hunting the killer; and the distance from the 1919 city of New Orleans to Luca's birthplace in Sicily is shorter in some ways than the walk from Angola prison to the downtown.

Celestin's a long-time scriptwriter for film and TV, which explains why his debut novel has the feel of a pro. Not only are the strands of crime and investigation and the pace of suspense and intrigue expertly woven -- but the insight into and connections for Luca, Michael, and young Lewis Armstrong kept me entirely involved. The book's clearly headed into a sequel, set in Chicago, and I hope it will arrive in "the States" soon; I'd drop almost everything else on my desk, to curl up with the next book from the mysterious Ray Celestin.

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