Dead Man’s Blues by Ray Celestin is the second book in the City Blues Quartet, which is set in Chicago in 1928 and features Pinkerton detectives, a murdered heiress, shadowy gangsters, and even Louis Armstrong.
Ray Celestin’s follow-up to 2015’s The Axeman is a doozy. Instead of New Orleans, this novel is set in Chicago in 1928, about ten years after the events of The Axeman. Michael Talbot and Ida Davis are now Pinkerton detectives navigating a city rife with vice and gangsters, and they’re pretty darn good at their jobs.
When the elegant, wealthy Mrs. Van Haren comes to their office wanting them to find out what happened to her missing daughter, Gwendolyn, they’re intrigued. It doesn’t hurt that she’s offering a fat reward for results. Technically, they’re not supposed to accept rewards, but it’s an amount that would allow them to open their own detective agency, and they’re sorely tempted.
They decide to take the job, and finding out what happened to the lovely Gwendolyn will lead them into some pretty interesting places. Turns out Gwendolyn was about to get married; she wasn’t too enthused about her fiancé, but her family is of dwindling old money and needed the new money that his family would bring. As Michael and Ida investigate, they find out that the skeletons piled in the Van Haren closet are legion.
I was fascinated to learn that the Pinkertons kept plenty busy during this time—the Chicago police were generally thought to be dirty and corrupt. Michael and Ida were known for getting results in more than a few high-profile cases, which led Mrs. Van Haren to their door.
Meanwhile, a photographer named Jacob Russo is taking crime scene photos of a man who’s been brutalized in an alley in the crime-ridden Black Belt part of Chicago. It’s a place filled with nightclubs where anything goes, and violence is a daily occurrence. This particular man has been stabbed and his eyes cut out.
It’s not a pretty picture:
Stab wounds littered the man’s sizable belly and chest, but it was his face—a tough, lined, mustachioed face—that caught Jacob’s attention. The man’s eyes had been gouged out. The eyeballs placed, quite daintily, a few inches from the head, where they lay atop the greasy asphalt like a pair of peeled lychees, catching the reflection of the neon sign, the dragon appearing at intervals on their glossy white domes.
After the stabbing and the gouging, the man had been finished off with hands around his throat—where there was a ring of blue and yellow bruises. What was left of his face bulged unnaturally, the blood having rushed into it during the strangulation, causing lips and nose and cheeks to swell, veins to pop, making the face less human and more like a plastic Mardi Gras mask, half melted in a fire. And on top of all of that, the face was flashing purple and red in two-second intervals.
Celestin has a way with words, huh? When Jacob is developing the photos later, he notices similarities to another crime scene he’d photographed, and he fears that a brutal killer has returned.
Another storyline involves fixer and heroin addict Dante Sanfelippo, who has returned to Chicago from New York to help out his old acquaintance, Al Capone. A shindig involving the mayor, the governor, and two former senators was hit by a bad batch of booze, killing several and landing several more in the hospital. It’s a bad look for Capone, and he suspects there’s a turncoat in his midst. It’s Dante’s job to ferret him out, but if Capone finds out about his addiction, this might be his last job ever.
Michael and Ida are a fascinating pair. Ida is a young, light-skinned African American woman—light enough to pass for white—and it gives her a unique standing in such a divided world. She’s as comfortable among the upper crust as she is with the melting pot of the Bronzeville jazz clubs where their investigation eventually leads. Michael is white but married to a black woman, and they have kids as well, which makes them outcasts too. It’s a unique and fascinating partnership and friendship. Adding to the awesome, Louis Armstrong—Ida’s childhood friend—pops into the picture to help Ida with their case, and Celestin brings him to vibrant life.
Lest one think that Celestin paints Dante as a straight-up bad guy—think again. Dante has a dark, tragic past, and although he’s not a good guy, it’s certainly hard to pin him down as a bad guy. He’s as three-dimensional and human as the good guys, and I love that.
Celestin captures 1920’s Chicago in all its grimy, roiling, teeming glory in this intricate and absorbing thriller, which is surely destined to be an instant go-to for historical crime enthusiasts. Fantastic.
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