King Zeno

Written by Nathaniel Rich
Review by Jeff Westerhoff

New Orleans comes alive in 1918: the Great War is over; the musical sound of jazz is heard in many of the clubs and honkytonks around the city, while the Spanish influenza invades homes, sending many to hospitals or the morgues. Meanwhile, Detective Bastrop is on the trail of “Negro” highwaymen who rob and injure innocent people. Bastrop continues to fight his demon: during the war, a bomb buried his men in their shelter, while he alone escaped to safety. He knows that because he was a coward, he failed to help save his comrades.

Isadore Zeno plays a mean trumpet to the new jazz music for little pay and wants to become famous. He tries to make a better living as a highwayman at night. Beatrice Vizzini, wife of a former mobster who died recently, is trying to move her inherited company onto the straight and narrow. Her son, Georgio, has other plans and uses intimidation and violence to convince people to sell land so their company can complete the Industrial Canal that is being dug through the city swamplands. Meanwhile, there is an ax murderer on the loose, killing primarily grocers throughout the city.

I found this a fascinating crime novel set during the turbulent, racist times in New Orleans right after the war. The story is told from the viewpoint of Detective Bastrop, Isadore Zeno, and Beatrice Vizzini. The characterizations are well drawn, and the writing is exceptional. The author knows how to bring the reader into the locale because he has studied the city’s history and gives life to the city and the characters. The story stayed with me long after I finished the book.