By Francis Spufford
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
Many alternate history novels take on the form of mysteries. It allows the authors to slowly reveal the differences in their worlds as their detectives slowly uncover the clues that allow them to resolve the case they are working on. The best of these also tie the motive into the altered polity of the world in which they are set. Francis Spufford adopts the mystery form for this novel Cahokia Jazz, which is set in southern Illinois in 1922 in a world in which a Cahokian confederacy has maintained enough sway that they have carved out their own state in parts of Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, Missouri, and Arkansas.
Joe Barrow is a mixed Native American/Caucasian who was raised in an orphanage in Nebraska. When the novel opens, he has recently joined the Cahokia police department as a detective and paired with a Caucasian detective named Phin Drummond, who seems to have connections in low places. After Barrow and Drummond are assigned a murder case when a man named Frederick Hopper was found dead on a rooftop in what appeared to be an Aztec sacrifice. The case is made more difficult when they discover that Hopper was involved in the Ku Klux Klan and also owed money to a local mobster. Shortly after being assigned the case, Barrow also finds himself sought out by "The Moon," a high ranking member of the local native community who is taking a special interest in the case.
The novel begins relatively slowly as Spufford establishes his characters, their setting and introduces a reasonably large pool of potential suspects and red herrings for Barrow and Drummond to investigate. Once Spufford begins to build his groundwork, the pace of the novel picks up as Barrow begins to track down leads, often placing him at odds with his partner, who is happy to take the path of least resistance, especially if it makes them look good to their higher ups who only want to be able to be able to announce that the perpetrators have been caught. Of course, the stakes turn out to be more than a simple, if gory, murder case. The racial tensions in the city, divided by a white class that overtly runs the city, a Native American class which has its own shadow government, and a black contingent, are roiling beneath the surface, just waiting for a catalyst to cause an eruption that will be felt far from the confines of Cahokia.
Spufford's version of Cahokia is a gritty and complex city, with a variety of factions operating just beneath the surface, occasionally coming up for air and conflict with the other factions. Making Barrow a newcomer to the city allows Spufford to provide basic information about his world in a realistic manner as Barrow not only is uncovering the clues needed to solve Hopper's murder, but is also learning the complexities of the city he is come to protect, along with the various people he comes into contact with. Being part Native American, but raised in an orphanage also means that he is a stranger to a culture which could have been his, but is important for the reader to understand.
Even if the pacing isn't entirely consistent, Spufford presents an interesting culture and an intriguing mystery, building steam as it moves towards its denouement. Barrow is allowed to reconnect with his stolen heritage and his world becomes much broader than it was when he was assigned the case and he moves from a wide eyes rookie to having an understanding of what police work really entails.
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