Dead Man’s Blues

Written by Ray Celestin
Review by G. J. Berger

The kidnapping of an heiress, the mutilation death of a gangster, and the champagne poisoning of local politicos are the triggering events of this crime novel set in Chicago at the height of Prohibition.

This great city is as much part of the story as the characters in it. Gangs compete to provide booze, drugs, and prostitutes to a Roaring Twenties public. African Americans escaping the South and looking for decent work flood in but can’t evade rampant racial prejudice. Street gun battles and bombings are everyday occurrences, while cops and judges on the take stand aside. Rich details of the streets, buildings, and the searing summer weather, as well as excerpts from news reports and other documents add context.

A seasoned Pinkerton agent and his young African-American female assistant take on the kidnapping. A freelance crime photographer becomes obsessed by the gangster’s death. Al Capone hires a “fixer,” recently from New York, to fix whoever did the poisonings. Interwoven with roles from Louis Armstrong, members of Chicago’s upper crust, and low-lifers, the three investigations unfold and come together at a fast pace and resolve in a hold-onto-your-seat series of twists, chases and shootouts.

Celestin does not shy away from gruesome details, horrid human behavior, and intensely violent action, but readers of hard-boiled murder mysteries will enjoy the ride to the very last page and will appreciate the honest portrait of a big city finding its way.