Jazz, murder and racial tension in an alternative 1920s America

An unidentified band plays some jazz onstage at a venue in Chicago, ca.1920s
An unidentified band plays some jazz onstage at a venue in Chicago, ca.1920s - Chicago History Museum

Francis Spufford used to be one of the UK’s most respected non-fiction writers, covering topics as diverse as British engineers, Soviet economics and polar exploration. For years, he toyed with fiction but didn’t dare to attempt it. Everything changed when he tried to write about 18th-century New York and found himself making up a story instead: Golden Hill was published in 2016 to critical acclaim, winning the Costa Book Award for First Novel and the Ondaatje Prize.

According to the blurb for Cahokia Jazz, Spufford’s third fictional foray, Cahokia in 1922 is “a city that never was”. That’s not quite true: in its heyday, about four centuries before Columbus turned up, Cahokia was North America’s largest population centre above Mexico. Pottery, ceremonial art, games and weapons have all been found. It declined and vanished in the 14th century, but its enduring legacy is a series of gigantic earthen mounds: at 10 storeys high, the largest was, until 1867, the tallest manmade structure in the US.

Cahokia Jazz gallops through a tumultuous March week for the citizens of his imaginary 20th-century city, which a map shows to be in a new state between Illinois and Mississippi. The action unfolds in six sections from Monday to Saturday, and opens on a dark, snowbound night with the discovery of an eviscerated body on a roof in the city centre. A murder has been committed in the style of a human sacrifice, ribs torn asunder, “like a pair of fans, or fish’s fins”, the heart ripped out.

Two detectives, Phin Drummond and Joe Barrow, pals since they served in France, are on the scene. Drummond splashes some corn liquor from his flask onto the body to reveal “a bare spot of flesh – scrawny, middle-aged, most definitely in its chicken-neck paleness takata”. In this alternative colonial history, where a different smallpox strain conferred immunity among Native Americans, some of whom speak a language Spufford calls Anopa, a takata is a “person of European extraction”, while (we learn) “a takouma is a person native to the continent, and a taklousa is a person of African ancestry”.

Daubed on the victim’s forehead in blood is the word “bashli”, Anopa for “cut”, a slogan a group known as the “Warriors” have been writing on walls across the city. “Like, ah, cut the cord, cut the connection? Cut the city back out of the US, get it independent again. Takouma craziness,” Drummond explains for Barrow, who grew up in an orphanage in Nebraska, and doesn’t speak Anopa. “This is gonna stir things right up, you see if it doesn’t. Crazy times a-coming, my friend.”

Francis Spufford, author of Cahokia Jazz
Francis Spufford, author of Cahokia Jazz - Antonio Olmos

“Aztec Slaying!” is how the Post, a newspaper hostile to the takouma, describes the killing, although as we later learn, the takouma are not Aztecs. Clarity on all these fronts comes when Prof Alfred Kroeber, an anthropologist who existed in real life, pops up as a character; Spufford dedicates Cahokia Jazz to the memory of his daughter, Ursula Kroeber Le Guin. Yet the Aztec-murder angle is enough to whip into a frenzy relations between Cahokia’s inhabitants, who include a figurehead prince and his niece princess – culminating in a Klan march four days after the body is discovered.

Spufford’s counterfactual narrative is an ingenious backdrop to his first foray into crime noir. He’s entirely convincing about the possibility that Cahokia survived into the 1920s, influenced not by Aztecs but by the Jesuit fathers, who fled north after the fall of Tenochtitlan. (How the indigenous populations of North America survived smallpox in this universe is something Spufford discloses in the Notes at the end.)

What most gripped me, though, was not the resolution of the murder case, entertaining though that was, but the evolution of jazz-loving, piano-playing Detective Barrow – “a bum who can’t seem to get it together to decide if he’s a cop or a pianist” – who spends almost as much time figuring out who he is, as he does who killed Frederick Hopper. There is a particularly neat segue back to human sacrifice. It’s a delight of a novel – one that will send those who know Spufford for his fiction scampering to his non-fiction backlist.

Cahokia Jazz is published by Faber & Faber at £20. To order your copy for £16.99, call 0844 871 1514 or visit Telegraph Books