The Axeman

Written by Ray Celestin
Review by Jo Haraf

The Axeman opens with a threat. New Orleans in the spring of 1919 was awash in rain, jazz, and murder when the Axeman, a real serial killer, posted a letter from “Hell” to the Times-Picayune predicting his next brutal slaying, promising to spare those “in whose home a jazz band is in full swing.”

As more bloodied, faceless victims are discovered, Detective Michael Talbot must solve the case before his family’s secret is revealed. Five years before the Axeman’s rampage, Michael sent his police mentor, Luca D’Andrea, to prison for collusion with the notorious Italian Black Hand gang. Released from prison early, Luca owes the mob one last job: find the killer who’s making the crime family look weak. Michael and Luca—once close, now competitors—scour crime scenes and bayous to save themselves and the citizens of New Orleans. The storyline of two men working through complicated pasts in a deadly present is layered with guilt and introspection.

Ray Celestin added another duo to his debut novel, perhaps too much of a good thing. Ida Davis, an aspiring secretary at Pinkerton’s Detective Agency, and her best friend, Lil’ Lewis—a young Louis Armstrong—also seek the Axeman. Through the pair’s investigations, Celestin explores New Orleans’ black markets, jazz clubs, and racially charged neighborhoods.

The Axeman is a novel of relationships, regret, crime, and mystery set in a city lavishly described in concrete and sensual detail. For readers who come to love the ensemble cast, the epilogue places Pinkerton Detectives Talbot and Davis in Chicago in search of Louis Armstrong’s new boss: Alphonse Capone.