Cover Image: Cahokia Jazz

Cahokia Jazz

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Member Reviews

Francis Spufford’s imagination astounds!

I first had read his I May Be Some Time: Ice and the English Imagination, which I savoured for its gorgeous writing and its insight. Then, he wrote the novel On Golden Hill in the style of 18th c novels by Henry Fielding and his sister Sarah. Then he astounded with Perpetual Light, imagining the lives children would have lived had they not been killed in a horrible accident.

Now, he has given us an alternate history/noir novel with Cahokia Jazz.

Spufford imagines a New World visited first by a less deadly smallpox virus, leaving the indigenous population immunized. With a healthy Native American presence they were able to establish their own state in the middle of the continent where native, black, and white are equal. The Jesuits converted the Native Americans by overlaying Christian ideas on the native myths. The land is not privately owned, with limited time leases for its use. And, there are the figureheads of a king and his princess sister.

The white immigrants from the North come for jobs but bring their racial prejudices, and the Klan is a strong organization.

The novel begins with the horrific murder of a white man, found with his heart torn out in imitation of ancient Aztec ritual killings. The whites flee the state, and those who remain are ready to riot against the Native American government.

Detective Barrow, a Native American who grew up in an orphanage, is on the case. Identified as Thrown-Away Boy, a hero in native legend, he is given access to the royal palace, and encountering the beautiful princess, falls in love.

It is a novel rich in detail and character, a great mystery, if not a fast reading page-turner, with interesting red herrings and twists. Its immensely entertaining in the way a murder mystery or alternative history can be, but also reflects our contemporary world’s ills. (One character suggests that the Klan army marching to attack the seat of government were really Jesuits out to stir up trouble!) Plus there is a love story! And scenes in a jazz lounge, with Barrow pounding out Jelly Roll Morton’s “Kansas City Stomp”. And a spunky secretary who staples the hand of a man who goosed her one time too many.

Then, there is the great noir style writing. “His voice was a Boston Brahmin Drawl, with vowels as aristocratically deformed as if an ottoman has been dragged on top of them.” “Muscle work was a stupid thing for a pianist to get involved in.” “Their money was so old that it underlay the United States like geology.”

My faith in Spufford reinforced, I will read anything the man writes.

Thanks to the publisher for a free book.

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This book is SO much fun. It’s totally different from Spufford’s previous novels, but totally in his wheelhouse at the same time. Joe Barrow is a riot, and I loved his noirish, alternative Jazz Age. I would recommend this to anyone who is a fan of New York stories, film noir, and/or murder mysteries.

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I'm new to this author but certainly see the talent. Interesting plot and characters made this an engaging read.

I really appreciate the free copy for review!!

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Tremendous. Spufford, always good, surprises this time with an historical novel set in a reimagined US, with its own deities and language. Yet it’s a murder mystery. And a love story. And a good old adventure with a big, heroic good guy at its centre. This is truly gripping stuff, fully fleshed, romantic yet persuasive. Barrow is in the Bogart mould. I’d like to meet him again but hopes of a sequel are fading…

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