Cahokia Jazz by Francis Spufford
Described as “hothouse jazz noir” by Joe Hill, this complex and fascinating speculative historic mystery is a compelling read that will be difficult to put down. Plenty of meat here, plus an amusement-park ride through alternative culture.
Speculative fiction (a broad category, arguably) is wonderful. What if Hitler won? What if Columbus had foundered and sunk? What if a cure for death was found? What if we discovered life on distant planets? What if, as in this case, the people native to this continent had not been slaughtered by disease, aggression, discrimination and marginalized by sequestration? The author proposes a scenario in which the “first peoples” thrived, created their own state among the United States located where the megalopolis of Cahokia once stood and become an active part of the government, protecting the rights and standing of its citizens and furnishing a place where races mixed freely and without institutional prejudice.
All that said, in this tale, there is still racism, the Klan exists in force, and between the Catholic church and ancient beliefs a fragile balance holds. Set in a fictional 1922, in Cahokia, a city and state in the center of the continent, a mixed-race policeman named Joe Barrow and his partner, a country-boy type named Phin Drummond have a strongly bonded relationship based in a shared experience in World War I. They are part of the murder squad of the department, routinely tasked with cleaning up the circumstances of drunks, hobos, domestic disputes and the like. But one morning a building cleaner discovers a mutilated corpse atop one of the municipal utility structures killed in such a way that it points at the kind of bloody sacrifice perpetrated by the Aztecs. A tortuously twisted set of events follow which send Joe, an orphan of native American and African heritage into a dark world of greed, politics, sex and jazz music. He is, besides being a detective a gifted pianist whose mind is constantly working on interpreting the work of others and creating his own compositions.
This dark and complex tale is told with a unique voice incorporating language from the Americas, cultural traditions evolved from ancient beliefs and modern corporate greed. The dialogue is intriguing, the characters fully developed and the plot deliciously complicated. Details of technology of the early 20 th century and some very modern notions about men’s and women’s roles in society that reflect some truly historic notions of gender primacy spice the sinister events. The author has taken special care to remain faithful to the truth about cultural references to spiritual beliefs and customs as well as language. It is good to know that while the whole is wildly imaginative fiction, there is truth underneath the story.