Francis Spufford’s novel Cahokia Jazz is pure indulgence. Based on the historical Mississipian civilisation Cahokia from AD 1050-1200, the story is set in an alternate gangster-riven 1920s America. An Aztec American Indian ruling population, the Taklouma (the Red) live alongside a people of African extraction known as Taklousa (the Black), and a Caucasion derivation known as Takata (the white). These different groups aren’t used to make any political points, but instead provide a rich textural backdrop for a classic detective murder-mystery novel.
The action takes place in a city vibrant with ancient traditions, largely appropriated for political ends, but based in historical precedence. The top sport, a derivative of the Mayan Pok A Tok, attracts stadiums of vociferous fans much like modern day ball games. Irrespective of colour, Red, Black or White, those at the top are all compromised and corrupted by the demands of power. The Ku Klux Klan maintain their historical racial prejudices, and Catholicism has merged with traditional Indian beliefs about the earth and its legions of demi-gods.
Spufford conceals his exposition cleverly in dialogue and circumstance which don’t detract from the linear narrative, which unfolds over the course of a week. The characters are vividly drawn and compelling. The novel’s use of many tropes of detective fiction, including the diffident haughty princess Moon and the silent-type hunk of a jazz virtuoso detective, makes for a hugely enjoyable read. I even found myself casting the movie. I’m not usually a reader of crime fiction, but when it is done well, as it is in Cahokia Jazz, it provides an enjoyable diversion.
A thrilling tale of murder and mystery in a city where history has run a little differently from the bestselling author of Golden Hill.