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In 'Cahokia Jazz,' alternate history mashes up with hardboiled noir

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Novelist Francis Spufford's latest work of alternative historical fiction is called "Cahokia Jazz." It's a hard-boiled detective novel that imagines an America where Native Americans weren't decimated by smallpox, brought over by Europeans, but rather flourished and exerted political power. The novel is set in the 1920s, but our book critic Maureen Corrigan says that its vision of democracy straining at the seams looks awfully familiar. Here's her review.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: Much of the action of Frances Spufford's latest novel, "Cahokia Jazz," plays out in the shadows, beginning with its opening scene - at first glance, a classic noir tableau. On a wet night, two police detectives stand on the roof of a downtown office building and stare at the corpse of a white man splayed out on a skylight. But look closer, the corpse has been eviscerated. This was a heartless crime, wisecracks the meaner of the two detectives. Here's something else to consider. The skylight the victim was bound to with rope is shaped like a pyramid. In another city, that would be a curious but relatively inconsequential detail. But this is Cahokia. In this city, the gutting of a white man atop a pyramid harkens back to Aztec ritual sacrifices and, by extension, the Indigenous civilization that once flourished in the area. In the actual history of the Americas, Cahokia, a site outside present day St. Louis, was the largest urban center north of Mexico before the arrival of Columbus. Today, only some 80 man-made mounds testify to the remains of the ancient city. In Spufford's mashup of noir with alternative history, however, the lost city of Cahokia endured and evolved into a modern metropolis whose Indigenous, white and African American populations live in cautious harmony.

Now, the grisly murder threatens to destabilize that democratic concord. This story, after all, is set in 1922, a time when the Ku Klux Klan is ascendant, especially in the Midwest. Cahokia is an outlier, a place where the color line doesn't exist. Utopia, it ain't. Much of the city is dirty, cramped and dangerous. But Cahokia is a rough zone of possibility. It takes brick upon brick of details to erect a city that never was on the foundations of one that's vanished. As he's done in his previous historical novels, "Golden Hill" and "Light Perpetual," Spufford layers this novel with period details. Here, he supplies fictitious maps, backstories and historical documents allegedly authored by Jesuit missionaries and founding fathers. Spufford even draws upon an old trade jargon to flesh out a language, Anopa, that's used in Cahokia, and he scatters phrases liberally throughout the novel.

Worldbuilding can be a tedious project, and there are stretches, especially early on, where "Cahokia Jazz" threatens to buckle under the weight of all these details. Fortunately, the other police detective on the roof that night emerges out of the shadows to come to the rescue of this novel and its dark and desperate promise of American redemption. Joe Barrow is the brooding moral center of this story, the man who leads us readers through the maze of this mystery and makes us care about who's generating and profiting from all this divisive chaos. Like every tough-guy detective who's ever walked the mean streets of pulp, Barrow is both within and without. He's a cop who itches to throw his badge away and play jazz piano. He's part Native American and part Black, a so-called thrown-away boy who was raised in an orphanage and understands fewer phrases of Anopa than his white partner does.

Now, in the wake of the pyramid murder, the city splinters into racial factions and Barrow, the man without a fixed sense of identity, must choose one. In a cinematic scene, Barrow finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time as a massive mob of Klan members pours into the center of the city to stake a claim for white rule. Here's the climactic moment where the mob and Barrow meet. (Reading) Barrow looked at the mob and saw in them his undoing. Not just the chance of his death, but the undoing of his doubts. He might be endlessly uncertain what he was. They weren't. They would see - they were seeing a big, brown man to play with, a toy for people angry that till now, they'd not be allowed here to be the biggest things in the world.

Spufford clearly has a blast in "Cahokia Jazz," summoning up the language and all the traditional tropes of a 1920s hardboiled tale - the femme fatale, the crooked cops, politicians and rich guys and working-class resentment as bitter as bathtub gin. He dexterously weds all of them to an alternative American history narrative that pointedly comments on the present. In the compelling character of Joe Barrow, a mostly decent man trying to make sense of a fallen world, many of us readers will recognize our own held breath bafflement, caught as we are on the darkling plain of our own barely believable times.

DAVIES: Maureen Corrigan is a professor of literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "Cahokia Jazz" by Francis Spufford.

(SOUNDBITE OF JIMMY ROWLES AND RAY BROWN'S "I'M GONNA SIT RIGHT DOWN AND WRITE MYSELF A LETTER")

DAVIES: If you'd like to catch up on interviews you've missed, like our interview with Molly Ringwald, film icon of the '80s, who's now in the TV series "Feud," or Mark Ruffalo, who's nominated for an Oscar for his performance in the movie "Poor Things," check out our podcast. You'll find lots of FRESH AIR interviews. For Terry Gross and Tonya Mosley. I'm Dave Davies.

(SOUNDBITE OF JIMMY ROWLES AND RAY BROWN'S "I'M GONNA SIT RIGHT DOWN AND WRITE MYSELF A LETTER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Maureen Corrigan, book critic for NPR's Fresh Air, is The Nicky and Jamie Grant Distinguished Professor of the Practice in Literary Criticism at Georgetown University. She is an associate editor of and contributor to Mystery and Suspense Writers (Scribner) and the winner of the 1999 Edgar Award for Criticism, presented by the Mystery Writers of America. In 2019, Corrigan was awarded the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing by the National Book Critics Circle.