Cahokia Jazz by Francis Spufford

There are so many things that you could focus on in this book. It has the elements of a standard detective story with a Native American detective,Barrow, and his friend Drummond who is the dominant one of the pair, leading Barrow to places he doesn’t want to think about. Set in an alternative America, Cahokia, where smallpox has wiped out a significant proportion of the population but not Native American’s who have survived and now have an area that is there own.

A ritualistic, murdered body is discovered on top of a building and Barrow and Drummond investigate. Slowly, the book reveals that Drummond is not what he appears and is making money from deals he has made, how Cahokia came to be and how it is run and where the power lies. There are big fight scenes where the Ku Klux Klan organise an enormous march and an attack on a woman that Barrow is deeply attracted to. There is the background of jazz running through because Barrow is a brilliant jazz pianist and can’t decide whether to remain in the police or follow a jazz career. It makes the book a little like Ray Celestin’s Jazz quartet but I think there are also ghostly elements of James Lee Burke’s books set in a similar part of the USA with the ghosts of the past ever present and sometimes seen by the lead detective Robicheaux.

His understanding of the situation was a fog-bound metropolis in itself, and among the things moving those clouded internal streets, there was a procession following a pinprick of light, and a woman’s voice telling a story from not long after the creation of the world.


There are so many layers to this book: friendship and loyalty, race, catholicism, tribal lore, belonging and cultural tensions. It’s a lot and so the detective/noir element is really the vehicle to deliver these ideas. Like all good historical fiction, it definitely illustrates elements of life today.

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