Friday, June 10, 2011
Friday's Forgotten Book: Julie Smith's THE AXEMAN'S JAZZ
This novel, published two decades ago in 1991, was the second in Smith's Skip Langdon series. The book draws on the legend of a true New Orleans serial killer whose letters to contemporary newspapers taunted the police and offered the twist that anyone playing jazz music during the night was exempt from being murdered.
I read it long ago and thought it disappointing; I reread it just last night and found it well worth endorsing here.
The protagonist/narrator police investigator describes herself as six feet tall and about twenty pounds overweight. Her social-climbing mother still says that she is "fat as a pig," a phrase that grates on her daughter in the night. But she has no difficulty attracting men of any size, it seems.
That first time around, long ago, I found the book unpleasant company, overly chatty with too little narrative tension. Last night I found it to be witty, nuanced, and insightful. The book hasn't changed, but I have. My empathy has grown.
The killer frequents various 12-step programs in the city, and Skip goes in search of him, allowing us to see how Overeaters Anonymous and such other programs work. The protagonist has an eye for the value of such programs as well as the way manipulative adults use them. She especially skewers author John Bradshaw's "codependency" programs.
Smith uses both psychology and anti-psychology, she seems anti-stereotype while endorsing such types as "southern belle," something her protagonist rags about again and again. Such flights of direction make it hard to pinhole the novel one way or the other, and that's a good thing.
This is a very fine book, but it could have been so much better. Despite the title and the legend behind it, there is nary a reference to jazz, not even at the Axeman parties in New Orleans. The atmosphere cries out for a jazz theme or reference, but none is provided in here.
You can read about the Axeman, truth and legend, at this link, and the wikipedia link is here.