Cahokia Jazz by Francis Spufford

What would Jazz Age America be like if it had a large and powerful Native American state in the Midwest, with its capital a thriving city called Cahokia, descendant of the largest Indigenous settlement north of Mexico? In 1922, the great Mound is still the symbolic center of the city, as it has been for nearly a thousand years. Next to it, though, is the Catholic cathedral, reflecting the alliance the future Cahokians made with the Jesuits before they made the long trek up from Mexico and settled in the Mississippi valley, displacing and mingling with the other nations who were there. The city has a radio station on a nearby bluff, an Algonkian hotel, Union Station on Grant Square, F. Xavier University, densely built traditional housing in the area immediately surrounding the ceremonial Plaza by the Mound, Germantown off to the west where many recent white immigrants live, and three modern skyscrapers just behind the Mound. They’re headquarters of the three trusts — Water, Land, Power — that undergird Cahokia’s prosperity and bring their tradition of collective ownership into the twentieth century.

Cahokia Jazz by Francis Spufford

Cahokia Jazz begins atop the Land Trust amid a light pre-dawn snowfall, detectives Phin Drummond and Joe Barrow summoned by a patrolman who had been alerted by one of the building’s overnight cleaning staff. “With the building dark beneath it, the skylight on the roof of the Land Trust was a pyramid of pure black. Down the smooth black of the glass, something sticky had run, black on black, all the way down into the crust of soft spring snow at Barrow’s feet, where it puddled in sunken loops and pools like molasses. On top, a contorted mass was somehow pinned or perched. … The whole scene on the roof was a clot of shadows, and the wind was full of wet flakes.” (p. 3) Clotted indeed, for the substance that has run down the glass is blood, and the contorted mass is the body of a man who has been murdered — ritually, by all appearances — at a site that’s both inaccessible and symbolically important to the city. To make matters worse, someone has written a Cahokia gang’s slogan in blood on his forehead. “‘But they write it on walls, not on bodies,’ [said Barrow]. ‘Till now,’ said Drummond.” (p. 9)

Drummond and Barrow are experienced investigators for the Murder Squad of Cahokia’s police department — a big city in Prohibition America sees plenty of deadly crime — but this case could quickly get much more explosive. The two of them have seen a lot since joining up together, Drummond’s idea, after getting out of the Army at the end of the Great War.

Normally, it was true [Drummond] would have had a stogie wedged in his mouth by now, talking nineteen to the dozen around it and sending up blue smoke in puffs and swathes like a curtain between him and whatever his hands were doing. Smoke and nonsense as the two of them rolled over the body of a drunk in an alley hit a little too hard when someone stole his wallet. Smoke and nonsense as they heaved the deadweight from a bathtub, in an apartment buzzing with flies where a wife-beating had tipped into homicide. Smoke and nonsense when they fished up a citizen from the brown water after a fight on a riverboat. Or, increasingly, when they went out with the meat-wagon to a waste lot to retrieve the bullet-chewed remains of a moonshiner, curious about causes and culprits or absolutely not, depending on what arrangement Drummond had made just then with the opposing sides in the liquor war. Barrow left that stuff to him. He took the money and preferred not to know. … All standard business for the Murder Squad; and all of it Drummond would face with a smokescreen of smoke and a smokescreen of words … But no cigar now, and whatever this rooftop gutting turned out to be, it was not a standard death. (p. 7)

No sooner has Barrow completed his inquiries at the scene of the crime than he is invited to step into a black and maroon Duesenberg for a conversation.

And there in a half-light smelling of musk and violets, at the far end of a long supple leather seat like a couch in a gentleman’s club sat a [Cahokia] of about sixty, but without a single white strand in his loose black hair. He was wearing an astrakhan coat. His face was long and ascetic, with lidded eyes and a nose like the keel of a ship. Round his neck he had the insignia of a papal knight, set in intricate enamel with creatures writhing around it at the four compass points. From heavy gold roundels in the lobes of his ears, red mischievous faces craned forward. His name was Sebastian Cuauhtemoc Hashi, and Barrow had seen his face in a thousand official portraits on a thousand [Cahokia] walls. He was the hereditary shareholder of the Cahokian Pacific Railroad, the honorary colonel of the Cahokian National Guard, the brother of the cardinal-archbishop of Cahokia, the father of Senator Augustine Hashi. When Cahokia had issued money of its own, and the face of his uncle the previous Cuauhtemoc had appeared on it, “Prince” had been printed before his name. This Cuauhtemoc had no title; was in theory only citizen Hashi of the United States of America. But he remained the fellow in the palace. He was still the Man of the Sun. (p. 26)

Because Cahokia Jazz is a Francis Spufford novel, it is many things at the same time — much like its characters. It is a hard-boiled police procedural set amid bootleggers, nosy reporters, crooked cops, and a few people genuinely interested in the truth. It is a story of a partnership and friendship begun amid war, and a portrait of some of the things that happen to soldiers who come back to peacetime but cannot themselves find peace. It is a portrait of Joe Barrow, an orphan Indigenous man who only speaks English, working out who he is, where he belongs, what he really wants. All while facing deadly danger in the course of an extraordinary week. Cahokia Jazz is also an exploration of power, who has it, where it comes from, how they wield it, what it does to them, and what they do for it.

Because it is set in an alternate history, Cahokia Jazz is obviously in part a story of how the world got that way. Spufford hints more than explains, and he’s not an author who brings the backstory into the foreground very much, but he has come up with some interesting differences. The Mormons have succeeded in setting up an independent Republic of Deseret in the mountain West. The British hung on to their part of Oregon. There is a Navajo state of Dinétah. Russia’s civil war is spilling into North America in the Novaya Sibirskaya Territorii. Mississippi is an all-Black oasis of freedom amid the persistence of Jim Crow in most of the rest of the USA, with Cahokia a major exception. It pays not to think too hard historically about the details. The constellation of long-past events that Spufford posits would not have produced Prohibition and President Harding, nor would practically all the other state boundaries have remained the same.

Which points to one more aspect of Cahokia Jazz: that it’s a romp, a jazz improvisation on the themes of murder investigations and history. Spufford has chosen the setting that he wants to play in and come up with plausible reasons for why things are the way they are. Beyond that he’s having fun, and inviting readers to join in. There are far more tips of the historical hat than I had any hope of catching, and different readers will spot different things, so a few examples will have to suffice. Spufford dedicates the book to the “respectful memory of Professor Kroeber’s daughter,” that is, to Ursula K[roeber] Le Guin. The professor himself shows up in the middle of the book as a minor but interesting and important character. A wealthy foundation in Cahokia is supporting the work of one “Thomas,” a poet working in England with a day job at a bank. That would be T.S. Eliot. The oldest son in Cahokia’s formerly royal family, Francis Xavier Hashi, has cashed in on his background by becoming a movie star in the new industry out in California. Frankie has gone to Hollywood.

Despite the occasional in-joke, Cahokia Jazz is as serious as a murder investigation. This are of course are not as they seem, and many players — bootleggers, the Klan, the secret Cahokian societies that owe old allegiance to the Man of the Sun, among other — are playing many different games. Will Drummond and Barrow discover how and why an eviscerated body ended up atop the Land Trust? If they do, will they be better off for knowing? Will the city?

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