The Axeman’s Jazz – Book Notes
Below is the slightly edited Preface to one of the editions of The Axeman’s Jazz…
It was by accident that I came to write a crime novel. A few years ago I was contacted by a friend of mine with ‘a great idea for a film’. He sent me a link to the wikipedia page of The Mad Butcher of Kingsbury Run, a serial killer who was active in Cleveland in the 1930s, suggesting we should adapt the story for the screen. The story was an interesting one, not so much on account of the killer (who was never caught), but on account of the detective who failed to catch him – Elliot Ness, who was on something of a downward spiral since his success with The Untouchables.
I began researching the story and working up the usual intricate plot required of all crime films, when a few months into the process, everything came crashing down: I decided to check that no-one else was working on a similar idea, and after a quick look on the internet, it turned out a famous director had secured the financing to make a movie based on the story, and filming was supposedly scheduled to start in a few months’ time.
I called my friend and told him there was a rival project in development and we called an end to the process. It’s distressing to lose that much work, but it’s something of an occupational hazard, and I learnt my lesson – always check the internet before starting a new project. I began to work on other writing assignments, but as the weeks went by, the idea of writing a historical crime story kept nagging away at me. The reconstruction of a lost time had been immeasurably appealing, and I had discovered research was very addictive. (Despite what some people may say, research isn’t a chore. It mainly involves buying books, reading them, and underlining the bits you find interesting.) So I decided to start again on the project, but with the mystery centring on a different serial killer. The only problem was, I didn’t know who. I was a writer in search of a serial killer.
If there’s one thing I’ve found the internet is good for, it’s auditioning serial killers. I spent the next few months delving into various true crime websites, and online serial killer directories (they do exist), and it was in these I first came across the Axeman of New Orleans, a somewhat forgotten entry in the world’s list of serial killers. The Axeman’s crimes were gruesome enough, but they were also couched in the supernatural, with people at the time proclaiming him a demon, a product of the city’s long association with voodoo and the occult. And just like Jack the Ripper, the Axeman had sent a letter ‘from hell’, which was published by the press. The letter caused an uproar, not least because the Axeman used it to offer the citizens of New Orleans a pact – it granted immunity to anyone that had jazz music playing in their house.
A jazz-loving demon from the Big Easy? I had found my killer.
I re-started my research, and as I read about the New Orleans of 1919, I became as beguiled by the setting as I was by the Axeman – the war had ended, prohibition was just around the corner, and the city was giving birth to jazz. It quickly became apparent the world I wanted to explore could not be encapsulated in a film script and only the greater scope and breadth of a novel could do the setting and the story justice. A novel would also allow me to utilise a multi-stranded plot, where different detectives searched for different truths within the same crime.
A ‘who’s gunna solve it?’ as well as a ‘who dunnit?’
Over the next few years I worked up the story with help from an army of people too numerous to mention here, and what you have in your hands is the result. I hope you enjoy it.
Books are often the children of other books and it would be remiss of me not to mention the two biggest influences on this novel; firstly, the writings of the musicologist Thomas Brothers; and secondly, the writings of Louis Armstrong himself, who was a talented and prolific writer, publishing in his life-time two memoirs, numerous newspaper and magazine articles, essays, music reviews and book criticism, as well as penning thousands of letters of correspondence.
But what of the film based on the story of The Mad Butcher of Kingsbury Run? The film whose appearance on the internet started the chain of events that led me to write this novel?
The film was never made.
So perhaps after all, the lesson is not to look on the internet before you start a project.