Cover Image: Cahokia Jazz

Cahokia Jazz

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I was really excited to read this book, but after two separate tries, I'm leaving it as a DNF. I just couldn't connect with the writing style, the characters, or the story.

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There were moments in this book where the prose was just beautiful. There were certain moments that were reminiscent of Morrison's Jazz, but in the end, this detective noir just didn't hold my interest as I had hoped it would. The characters are interesting, but by the end of the book, the main character, Joe, just doesn't have enough of a realization - doesn't grapple enough with his identity - to satisfy what I thought were the aims of the novel.

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This review, attached here, has a rating of four stars out of five. Thank you very much for allowing me to check it out.

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I liked the first chapter, but then the pace slowed to a creep and it was way too slow for me. I did like the writing and the premise. Unfortunately, due to the slow pace, this book was just not for me. I DNF at the 20% mark.

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First published in Great Britain in 2023; published by Scribner on February 6, 2024

Police detectives in the city of Cahokia work to solve a murder in Cahokia Jazz. Wikipedia, the repository of all knowledge, tells me that Cahokia, located across the Mississippi from the current site of St. Louis, was the first significant settlement in North America. The remaining mounds have been designated as an historic site. The city existed from 1050 to 1350, but the novel imagines that in 1922, it is a modern city populated by three segregated racial groups. The US is at war with Russia in the territory now known as Alaska. Against that background, Cahokia Jazz might best be described as a crime novel with literary aspirations set in the context of an alternate history.

In the eyes of some, the city founded by Aztec royalty is still ruled by Aztec royalty, although the native residents — Aztec by legend more than ancestry — were largely converted to Catholicism by a Jesuit priest. Native beliefs nevertheless shape policy. Private ownership of land is forbidden in Cahokia; land belongs to everyone. The Land Trust manages long-term leases of land to its tenants. Water and electricity are shared in the same way.

Frederick Hopper’s bloodied corpse is found on the rooftop of the Land Trust building. Hopper is a takata — a person of European ancestry. The two other prominent ethnic groups in Cahokia are takouma — with ancestry that is native to the continent, and taklousa — a person of African ancestry. A takouma word, written in blood on Hopper’s forehead, might be translated as a call for independence.

Two detectives are assigned to the case. Joe Barrow is a mix of takouma and taklousa. Phineas Drummond is takata. Hopper’s wife, representing the views of many takata, regards Barrow as a savage and will only speak to Drummond. Hopper was in the Klan, a popular organization in his home state of Ohio, before he moved to Cahokia. By the novel’s midpoint, the Klan will be leading an insurrection.

The story explains Barrow’s connection to Drummond, first as wounded soldiers who met in a hospital, then as partners in law enforcement. Barrow isn’t quite sure how he feels about Drummond. He appreciates Drummond’s willingness to see him as an equal (an unusual trait among the takata) but doesn’t admire the man’s personal qualities. Drummond is being paid off by bootleggers and has a taste for hookers. Thanks to his connections, Drummond has developed an addiction to amphetamines, well before amphetamines will be marketed by pharmaceutical companies. By the novel’s midway point, it appears that Drummond has fully betrayed his already shaky allegiance to law and order. He certainly doesn’t seem keen on solving Hopper’s murder.

A journalist brings Barrow to the attention of the Man of the Sun, a leader in the Aztec tradition. Barrow describes the Man as “the lord high wizard to the takouma” but he seems pretty much like every other religious/political leader. The Man refers to Barrow as “Thrown-Away Boy,” a phrase from an Aztec myth that is uncomfortably descriptive of Barrow’s childhood.

The Man’s niece, Couma Hashi, presides over the House of the Moon. Barrow meets Couma in the course of his investigation and is quite taken with her, although he realizes she is out of his league. Barrow will eventually find himself in a shootout, protecting Couma from political assassins.

The word painted on Hopper’s head is popular with the Warriors, a group that uses graffiti to support Aztec independence. Barrow’s prime suspect soon becomes a Warrior who believes in the Aztec tradition of blood sacrifice, although the modern version of the sacrifice is performed on rats. On the other hand, as a takouma suggests to Barrow, Hopper’s murder might be an “attempt to whip up takata against takouma.” Barrow will wonder whether that might be the case when he is literally caught between two angry racial groups as they march toward each other.

Cahokia Jazz is a story of death and sacrifice, politics and power, but it also tells the story of Barrow’s personal journey as he struggles to give a meaningful shape to his life. Elements of an action novel keep the story moving, but a subplot of unrequited love adds depth to Barrow’s character. His love is about as realistic as my dream of being Sandra Bullock’s boyfriend, but sometimes dreams come true. Will Barrow’s love be his downfall?

Much of the novel’s tension comes from the alternate futures that Barrow can imagine for himself and the uncertainty of the choice he will make. He becomes something of a hero before the novel ends, but events tempt him to abandon law enforcement and pursue his true love — playing piano in a jazz band. The jazz performance scenes capture the creative magic of musicians at work.

I admire the research and creative reflection on “what might have been” that animates Cahokia Jazz. World-building can be essential to the credibility of speculative fiction. Francis Spufford’s city-building is masterful. Drummond knows every speakeasy and house of ill repute; Barrow knows the jazz clubs. The novel’s political background has the racially pure FBI chasing everyone suspected of being a communist sympathizer, which of course includes union organizers. Loan sharks are among the mobsters who add to the 1920s vibe.

Cahokia Jazz is an ambitious novel. To realize its ambitions, the lengthy story lags as its various elements catch up with each other. Still, Spufford always maintained my interest in the story’s multiple threads. While Cahokia Jazz has obvious parallels to modern America’s racial and political division, the novel blends politics with action and mystery. The story’s ending forces Barrow to make a difficult choice, one that involves sacrifice and the death of a friendship. The novel ultimately succeeds because of Barrow’s complicated story, the kind of story that is simultaneously sad, heartwarming, and inspirational.


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This noir detective story presents an alternate US history in which Native Americans (here called takouma) have equal power with the people of European extraction (takata). Sadly and stereotypically, people of African extraction (taklousa) are mainly janitors or jazz musicians. Honestly, those three similar terms confused me for the first half of the book and I found that needlessly annoying.

This author excels at creating interesting concepts. but I think that he tried to pack in too much in this book. He also sort of misses the mark of race relations in the US. Nevertheless, I do admire the way he always comes up with something new, and the book held my interest.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher.

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Thank you @netgalley and @scribnerbooks for the gifted copy!

In an alternate version of 1920s United States where Indigenous Americans have thrived instead of being nearly completely wiped out, a gruesome murder is discovered at the top of the Land Trust building. A nondescript white man has been killed in a brutal way, and the once peaceful Cahokia is now in frightened conflict. Detectives Barrow and Drummond begin to investigate and learn that not everything is at it seems.

I have mixed feelings about this book. It's very possible that I'm just not smart enough for it, or reading it at a different time would make me feel differently about it. Who knows.

First, the pros. The writing is excellent. This is my first novel by Francis Spufford, and while I didn't love it, I would still read his other work
The plot is interesting and well planned.
The MC Barrow is well developed and I enjoyed reading his journey.
The alternate history of 1920s America was intriguing. It parallels the US of today in many ways, which is a sad reality of our society.

Now, the cons. It is evident we are meant to root for Barrow and despise Drummond (he's awful), however I wanted more. It's not particularly clear why Drummond does what he does or has his beliefs, unless I just missed it.
Some of the dialogue felt awkward.
There is a lot going on and I found it hard to follow at first.
The touch of romance felt unnecessary and out of p[ace.

The opening of the book pulled me in, then it dragged a bit, then got interesting again. I both liked and disliked the ending. I almost DNFed but I'm glad I stuck it out. And the author's note at the end made me appreciate it more, however I wish that was at the beginning of the book instead. So maybe read that first if you're interested? I can definitely see many readers loving this and I understand why there are 5 star reviews already. It will appeal to those who enjoy light historical fiction with a murder mystery. If you read it, let me know what you think!

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A densely plotted, at times challenging, novel that both an alternative history of the US and a mystery. Fans of Spufford know that there might be a spot in the novel where you want to put it down, rest for a while and maybe not pick it up again. And then you do because it's a rewarding read with good characters who you will find yourself caring about. The worldbuilding here- Cahokia in the 1920s- is imaginative and thoughtful. If the detectives Drummond and Barrow feel a tad trope-y, they aren't- they are quite original. It sprawls, it circles, it is classic Spufford. Thanks to the publisher for the ARC. Don't miss the afterword. This is one to savor.

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This book is so unique in that it tells an alternate history of the United States over the course of a police procedural to solve a murder. It was fascinating and compelling. I kept imagining this city in 1922 in the United States created in this book. The picture was rich and the characters alive as told by this author. I will read more form him.

Cahokia Jazz comes out next week on February 6, 2024, and you can purchase HERE! I loved this book and am going to read more from this author!!

"The official name of that train may be the Trans-Continent, but everyone in the city calls it . . . ?"

"The Usunhiyi," said Barrow. It was an Anopa name you couldn't fail to know: the train went by overhead twice a day, westbound and eastbound, as inevitable as the transit of the sun.

"Which, as you probably don't know, means 'the Evening Land?'

An ill-starred name. It goes west, you see, and west is the direction of sunset and endings. West is where the dead go.

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Just finished Francis Spufford’s CAHOKIA JAZZ (out 2/6/24) and it is extraordinary. An incredible feat of world-building wrapped around a murder mystery, a character study, and a study in morality as well. I am so glad this book is in the world.

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I went into this book completely blind & loved it.

The story starts out slow, with Detective Barrow and his deceitful partner (who have a long history) investigating a murder scene. It goes on to tell the story of how Barrow unravels a deeper, darker & more twisted web of power, lies, and murder than he ever expected.

Barrow is a seemingly naive, likeable main character. He encounters friendship, love, and big decisions. There is love, there is gore, there is hope in this book. It will make you question the paths you take in life and which one is right. I would recommend this book to all!

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An alternative history, semi-historical, murder mystery. And, if that sounds like a lot, well, it is. Interesting, but didn’t change enough for me to find it enjoyable.

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I found this book to be an intriguing alternate history, imagining what might have been if the history of Native Americans in the US had gone a bit differently. In that context I enjoyed the reimagined mid-west setting. I also enjoyed the identify crisis experienced by the main character as he struggled to understand his place in terms of his job, his ethnicity, his work and personal relationships and the political dynamic of the storyline. I did find the story sometimes a bit confusing as all the characters try to work their way through solving the "whodunnit". I would only recommend this to ardent fans of alternate histories, however, as for some it might be disturbing that even in an alternate universe the characters struggle with discrimination on many levels as well as with the tried and true situations of politics that seem to always plague us.

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I thoroughly enjoyed this alternate history novel where a Native American state has been established and flourishes in the middle of the post-Civil War United States. Blending the traditions of the indigenous people of the land and those of the Catholic fathers who supported them, Cahokia is a thriving city in 1922 in what we call Missouri.

The starting point for the story is the murder of a white man, in what appears to be a ritual sacrifice. In the course of the murder investigation, two detectives find themselves of a collision course intertwined with a conspiracy to set the city on fire. Jazz, prohibition, the Klan, and racial tensions are all as we record them in our history, and sound the backbeat of this interesting story.

I voluntarily read and reviewed an advanced copy of this book. All thoughts and opinions are my own.

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Cahokia Jazz by Frances Spufford imagines a world where the smallpox strain wasn’t all that bad and indigenous culture—especially that of the Cahokia area surrounding St. Louis- is thriving. But this is America—so we still have problems. We start with a murder, a couple of cops on a murder squad, a power struggle among the local leaders, and a city on edge as the Klan plans a march. There is a power struggle between local politics, religion, industrialists, and those trying to pull some strings in Washington.

At the novel's heart is Joe Barrow, an orphan “thrown away boy” cop who sits between three cultures—brown, white, and black. We follow Joe around the city as he works to solve a crime. As an outsider, he looks like the locals but can’t speak the language, plays jazz piano in his spare time, and longs for more than his day job. Throw in some standards from the detective novel—the partner, the women, the double crossings, reverse double crossings, and you have a fun and exciting romp to read.

I had heard of the Cahokia Mounds in Missouri, but a book like this can make you hungry to discover more, which I hope is also the point.

How does Spufford do it? This is the third book of Spufford that I have read. I immensely enjoyed his historical fiction look at Colonial America in Golden Hill and his nonfiction read The Child That Books Built. His writing is imaginative and thoughtful, and his fiction is fun. \

I look forward to more of his works. Forget the “what if Hitler won WWII”; give me more like this.

Here are a few other books I’d recommend:
Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather—this historical fiction focuses on two priests but also chronicles America of the Southwest and its hundreds of years of history of Spanish and Native Americans.
Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson--an alternative history that chronicles what might have happened if the Black Death had killed of 99% of Europe and features China “discovering” America.
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead—a fantasy and alternative history that imagines if the Underground Railroad was an actual railroad.
Lovecraft Country by Matt Rudd—the book the series was based on is a dark fantasy horror novel focusing on the Turner family and their interactions in the Jim Crow era with characters straight out of H. P. Lovecraft novels.

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Francis Spufford’s is an incredibly original author!
In Cahokia Jazz, Spufford has recreated the 20's in an alternative history where indigenous tribes are the majority and in power. Cahokia harkens back to a pre- Columbian Native American City ( in the Mississippi region. Indigenous language and practices including a SUN leader and Moon counterpart rule the city. It is the 20's however so there is jazz, smoke and the tendrils of noir worked into every club and bar and speakeasy.

Joe Barrow, is an indigenous man who grew up in an orphanage and is far removed from his culture. He is dedicated to justice despite being saddled with a corrupt partner. When a white man is found sacrificed on a skyscraper he has his work cut out for him. Join Joe in a alternative universe with a noir twist!. #scribner #cahokiajazz #francisspufford

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There have been infinite opportunities for the broad arc of American history to turn out differently, particularly if Europeans hadn’t reduced the indigenous population by orders of magnitude and instead had had to negotiate a less one-sided coexistence. The author’s note at the end elaborates helpfully.
Beyond the alternative history, this is a mostly entertaining police procedural, including a shootout climax. The protagonist is likable but the resolution is not terribly surprising. The motives for the crime share enough similarities to present day polarization and fear mongering to give pause.
Thanks to Netgalley and the publisher for the arc!

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3.5 stars, rounded down
“In a city that never was, in an America that never was”. Thus goes the blurb for Cahokia Jazz. This is a world building story about a town where Native Americans own and run this city along the Mississippi River. With their own language, they are a part of America, yet distinct from the normal rules of white supremacy, segregation and the Klan. Not that the whites are happy about that. Otherwise, it’s the same as history; there’s still prohibition and jazz.
It’s 1922 and a body has been found on the roof of the Land Trust. It’s the body of a nervous Takata, white man, in the parlance. A man who has been gutted in some sort of ritualistic sacrifice. A man who’s got a full Klan robe in his apartment closet. Two detectives, one Native American, one white, are investigating the murder.
The book is historical fiction, except it’s sort of not. The reader has to be willing to accept this gray middle ground. In the Author’s Notes, Spufford explains how his Cahokia came to be. Make sure to read it. In fact, Spufford would have done better to have included his rationale on the creation of Cahokia at the beginning of the book.
Spufford takes his time setting the scene, building the town and its citizens. There’s even a kind of “royal” family. I enjoyed letting myself get sucked into the world he created. The cultural themes are much more important than the police procedural plot line.
The main character is a Native American but he’s not from Cahokia. This gives him an outsider’s viewpoint. He’s a well developed MC but the other characters are less so.
I found the pacing of this uneven. I definitely felt it could have been condensed. I’m never sure if it’s just me and my heightened sense of the political, but the book kept me thinking about the current political situation and the Republican “Christian” white supremacy agenda.
My thanks to Netgalley and Faber and Faber for an advance copy of this year.

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Francis Spufford has written another unique novel, historical fiction set in a reimagined America.So creative so involving really engaging kept me turning the pages.A novel I will be recommending in 2024.

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My thanks to both NetGalley and the publisher Scribner for an advance copy of this book of fiction that features a different America, a mystery, the usual human prejudices with a the sounds of hot jazz for a soundtrack.

I have always been interested in books that feature alternate history, fiction of nonfiction. The idea that a person can change not only themselves, but history by going right instead of left, or delaying over a fine cup of coffee is just fascinating. The possibilities are literally endless. A president saved by putting a roof on a convertible, a bomb actually working stopping a second world war. Not losing so much of a population to an epidemic, thereby changing a country. Cahokia Jazz is a book about America, but one that is far different than the one we live in. Written by Francis Spufford whose book on polar exploration is a huge favorite of mine, Spufford writes of an country where the indigenous population was never decimated by disease or war, but has done well for itself, and a city where people of every race and idea live together, and the dark forces that are gathering to rend it apart.

This America has different states, more based on the Articles of Confederation than a constitution. Smallpox instead of destroying many of the indigenous people of the country, was more manageable, and a natural immunity was built by the people, who could deal with the colonizers on more equal terms. Though many of the old ways have been changed or adapted with the Jesuit faith that many of the people have become. The book is set in a city where people of all races live, balanced if not happily all together. Whites have come for jobs and opportunities, and have brought many of their prejudices, including the Klan. A body is found on a roof, killed in an almost ritualistic way. A white man, with Klan links, and one who worked for the city. The idea of this ritual scares many, and they have chosen Joe Barrow, an indigenous police officer, but one who grew up in an orphanage, with no idea of the history or legacy of the people, nor even speak the language. Joe knows war, and jazz music, but even Joe knows that something dark is happening around him, and he might be one of the only people who can stop what is coming.

The work involved in crafting this book really impressed me. The idea in world building, making a history, and rituals, and actions of so many different people, and to be able to communicate this with a story that really doesn't let go once it starts rolling. A true achievement. I have enjoyed Spufford's earlier nonfiction, but this is the first of his fiction I have read. Spufford makes everything seem real, logical, and even in some of the odder sections make sense. The characters from Joe Barrow, and his friends, to the widow of the dead man, even just walk on characters seem real more reportage that creating. The history, the ideas, so much to think about and explore. One of those books that a person really can get lost in.

Recommended for people looking for a big sprawling story that is new, different and very well-written. Also writers looking for how to build their own worlds and role playing gamers and designers can learn a lot about developing their own scenarios for gaming. I can't wait to read more fiction by Francis Spufford.

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