Dead Man’s Blues – Reading Group Guide


  1. The story is split into three distinctive investigations. Was there a particular storyline you looked forward to reading the most?
  2. 1920s Chicago is depicted as violent and corrupt, yet amidst the chaos, it is also the scene of the great cultural flowering now known as The Chicago Renaissance – of which Louis Armstrong was a part. Did this culture arise because of the turmoil? Or were these two aspects of the city independent of each other?
  3. Music is a constant theme running through the book – the plot itself is structured like the jazz song West End Blues. What did you think of Celestin’s description and use of music?
  4. Do you think Jacob should have been allowed in the police force? Or did his unique position make him more effective?
  5. Michael and Ida initially turn down the fifty-thousand dollar reward for finding the missing heiress, but then change their minds. Were they right to take it? Have they become corrupted by the corrupt city in which they live? What would you have done in their situation?
  6. Chicago is depicted as a segregated and racist city. And yet in the city’s jazz nightclubs, the races intermingled freely. Discuss the novel’s portrayal of race issues and possible reasons for why such a segregated city would use jazz clubs as a ‘safe space’ for racial intermingling.
  7. The characters living in the Blackbelt bemoan the fact that the area is being used for slumming by rich whites. They believe that this activity somehow undermines and destroys the culture that was created in the neighbourhood. Is this view valid?
  8. Things didn’t have to move forward via the clash and jostle of opposites; progress also occurred through texture… it was Louis who was teaching the world how to do it, but even he knew that solos were nothing without chorus.’ So Louis characterises the differences between himself and Capone, with Louis representing the ideal of collectivism (choruses), and Capone representing the ideal of individualism (solos). What do you think of these two famous figures being used to represent these two different ideals? How are themes of individualism versus society played out in the book?
  9. There is a focus on the dehumanising, mechanical aspects of the city – Michael describes Chicago as a ‘city of lines and force’. Jacob feels being in Chicago means ‘being a cog in some colossal, unfathomable machine’, Ida cannot get used to the city’s ‘unearthly growl’. Why do you think the city is depicted in this way?
  10. The book references voodoo in a number of different ways – Coulton likens the financial system to voodoo – ‘You want to know what the similarity between voodou and money is? … They only work if people believe in them.’ A sentiment echoed by the journalist Lowenthal (Chapter 28) and the drug dealer Michigan Red (Chapter 32). Dante also mentions how Capone’s power over the city is voodoo-like (Chapter 38). So voodoo is used as a byword for the invisible, violent forces that stratify and organise the city – what do you think of this analogy and how it is used?
  11. Along with the voodoo described above, other supernatural and fairy-tale elements exist in the book – Gwendolyn is described as a princess, Capone as a king, and his hotel as ‘metamorphosing into a castle’, Ida dreams of Chicago as a ‘fairy-tale city’, cinemas and skyscrapers become ‘palaces’, and there is the recurring motif of the dragon – the neon dragon above the alleyway crime scene, the dragon-train Dante watches as he injects himself on the beach, the factories on the city’s outskirts, whose chimney fires Jacob likens to ‘a dragon was laying waste to the land.’ What do these magical, fairy-tale elements add to the stark realism that’s also present in the book? Does the mix work?
  12. What genre would you put Dead Man’s Blues into? Were there any elements that didn’t fit neatly into that category?
  13. But the emptiness is the starting point. Maybe it’s meaningless so you’ve got the space to build your own meaning.’ So says Jacob to Ida when discussing the horrors he has seen as a crime scene photographer. Do you agree that if life has no meaning, it’s so as to allow us a space in which to create our own meaning?


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