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The Crack Magazine

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Cahokia Jazz by Francis Spufford

Francis Spufford scored great successes with his two previous, wildly different novels: ‘Golden Hill’ (a rollicking 18th century romp set in New York) and ‘Light Perpetual’ (five children are killed during a Second World War bombing raid and the novel imagines how their lives might have turned out if they’d lived). His third novel sees him pulling another handbreak turn with a hardboiled, noir-ish tale, set in a counterfactual North America of 1922. The location is the (fictional) Cahokia, a teaming metropolis with a strong Native American presence (in Cahokia Jazz’s world, the population of Native Americans has largely survived the sundry disasters that actually befell in them real life). The narrative begins with policemen Joe Barrow and Phineas Drummond (who is a hit-now-and-ask-questions-later type of guy) arriving at a crime scene. A man has been found on the roof of a building with his heart ripped out. All signs point to a ritualistic style murder, but to what end? Spufford really brings Cahokia to life in an impressive bit of world-building that recalls Michael Chabon’s excellent ‘The Yiddish Policemen’s Union’ (in which Jews create a state in Alaska rather than Israel) and Alan Moore’s similarly counterfactual ‘Watchmen’. From speakeasies to plush hotels to the teeming city streets, the cultural mix of Cahokia rub uneasily alongside each other while the city rulers, and a resurgent Ku Klux Klan, jockey for power and influence. Novels such as this can run aground because of the sheer amount of exposition involved, but Spufford – while still giving us a satisfyingly rounded backstory – never loses sight of the case in hand, and, in this particular case, it’s a real crackerjack. RM

Faber & Faber