The Axeman’s Jazz Afterword
I was asked by the German publisher of ‘The Axeman’s Jazz’ to provide a historical afterword for them to include in their paperback edition of the novel.
Since I never included an afterword in the original English edition, I figured I’d put a copy of it here. A variation of this now appears in later printings of the book (anything from December 2018 onwards, I think).
As with my other historical novels, I’ve tried to make this book as factually accurate as possible, and failed. Mainly this failure consists of moving the dates of certain events around to achieve a more exciting read. In a few other instances, I invented situations and scenes, but always within the realms of possibility. Below are some notes on the recognized history and where I’ve deviated from it; anything not mentioned here was either too minor to include, or is an oversight on my part, for which I apologize.
New Orleans in 1919 was a city in a state of flux – servicemen were flooding back from the war, the flu pandemic had only recently abated, Prohibition had been signed into law, the city’s famous red-light district had been closed down, there hadn’t been a Mardi Gras for three years, and the city’s mafia were on the rise. In the midst of all this came a killer who seemed to be a distillation of every upheaval the city was going through.
The Axeman really did kill six people during this period, although the attacks in the book differ from the real events in the fact that I compressed the timescale, making some of the killings occur closer to each other so that the novel felt pacier. I also exaggerated the severity of one of the attacks to make the Axeman seem more formidable. It’s interesting to note that the Axeman wasn’t particularly good at killing. In many instances he failed to finish off his victims – despite having all the advantages. In other instances, he was chased away before he could harm anyone at all.
Also differing from real life, I gave the killer an identity. To this day it’s unknown who was responsible for the murders, and the theories that attempt to explain what happened all fall a little short. Perhaps the most likely is that the killings were orchestrated by the mob. At the time the city’s mafia were heavily involved in money counterfeiting and used Sicilian shopkeepers as distributors. The fact that the early victims were all from this community suggests a link to this counterfeiting operation. However, while seeming plausible, this theory doesn’t take into account a couple of factors: firstly, the killer attacked women and children, which doesn’t really fit with the mafia’s supposed code of ethics, and secondly, it doesn’t really explain the fact that the later victims were from outside the Sicilian community.
Since the killer was never caught, and I didn’t want to leave the story open-ended, I had to come up with both an identity and a motive. This kind of thing is tricky to do – who do you decide to put the blame on? To guide me, I fell back on the themes. The killings created a panic which brought to the fore the city’s racial divide, racialized fears and hysteria. It made sense, therefore, that whoever was responsible should be linked to these issues. So I made the killer a victim of these same hysterias, someone who was striking back against societal injustices, a product of this unique
time and place.
A letter claiming to be from the Axeman was indeed published in the local newspaper, though whether or not it was actually written by the killer is a matter of debate. Regardless, the parties that occurred in response to it went down in New Orleans folklore as the greatest the city had ever seen. Strangely, the Axeman letter was not a front-page news item when it was printed in the Times-Picayune; it was relegated to the inner pages, and was treated something like a curiosity. In retrospect, and considering how big the parties it caused were, this seems a little odd.
The song that was composed for the night – ‘The Axeman’s Jazz’ – is real, and there are clips on YouTube of various different pianists performing it. There’s also a link to the song on my own website.
Another event whose timing I changed was the storm that ends the story. There was no major hurricane in 1919 – the actual ‘Great Storm’ occurred in October 1915. But the idea that the Axeman, a force of nature, was only flushed out of the city by another force of nature, seemed too fitting to pass up. The details of the storm in the book are all based on accounts of the 1915 storm, which killed 275 people and was one of the most destructive in the city’s history.
The most historically accurate parts of the book are the depictions of Louis Armstrong and the city’s jazz-music scene. This is due to the fact that most academic research undertaken on 1910s New Orleans has centred on its music, meaning there was a wealth of material to access. There was also Louis Armstrong’s own autobiography, Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans, which I highly recommend. A number of the scenes in the novel are dramatizations of anecdotes which are mentioned in it.
This is also where the character of Ida comes from. Armstrong briefly mentions that when he was an inmate of the Waif’s Home, sometimes his music teacher would take him back to his house for extra music lessons, during which the teacher’s daughter would provide accompaniment on the piano. Armstrong states that he struck up a friendship with this girl. I liked how this friendship seemed to cross class boundaries, so this brief mention of the girl became the basis for Ida. Their continuing friendship is my own invention, as is making her light-skinned enough to pass for white – a good way to explore the hypocrisy and double standards of the prevalent racial politics, and also a means by which to twist the trope of the great pulp detective being someone who can float between worlds.
The Axeman’s Jazz is the first part of a quartet of books that will chart the intertwining histories of the mob and jazz music over the middle part of the twentieth century. The series will follow the same characters over some fifty years, with the subsequent parts set in Chicago in the 20s, New York in the 40s, and Los Angeles in the 60s.
London, July 2018