Praise is building fast for Cahokia Jazz—a 1920s noir detective story that is also an alternative history spiked with anthropology, romance, and social tension. Mark Haddon (The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time) and Mick Herron (Slow Horses) blurbed the book with genuine enthusiasm, and critics have compared it to the novels of Michael Chabon, Colson Whitehead, Cormac McCarthy, and Richard Price. But I was excited for a different reason. Finally, somebody local had thrust our region, and the amazing and largely unsung history of its lost city, into the popular imagination. Eagerly skimming for the author’s name, I looked him up and—
Francis Spufford is a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and the Royal Historical Society. He teaches writing at the University of London. “I’ve always been interested in the idea of hinge points,” he told Slate, “and of worlds which seem inevitable vanishing in a moment.” Aware of the existence of Cahokia, he wondered what would have happened if the smallpox variant that came with the Europeans had been variola minor, with a negligible death rate.
Here my careful historian husband points out that smallpox might never have been a factor at all; the Mississippian civilization might have collapsed because of soil exhaustion or social disintegration. But Andrew reads only nonfiction. I read novels, and this one is a tour de force. Thick with gorgeous imagery that manages to paint picture after picture without preening. Tight with characterizations that, while they sometimes nuzzle a little too close to stereotype, still manage to feel honest. A gift, sent from overseas, to those of us who live in this place and can now dream of a different possibility.
Why was I surprised? It took a South African to restore and transform Forest Park. Now an Englishman has given us a Cahokia in which three groups intermingle—Indian, Black, and European—with precarious harmony. The book opens with a fictional excerpt from a visitor’s brochure: “Three words you must bring with you when you arrive in this most distinctive of American cities.” Those words are takouma, for people native to the continent; taklousa, for those of African ancestry; and takata, for those of European ancestry. The thrill of this alternative history is that the city is equally shaped by those three groups. The disappointment is that even so, we takata still jostle and vie for supremacy. The Klan is present, its cruel schemes used by the wealthy White power brokers who want total control. The takouma, meanwhile, have their Warriors, rebellious young militants who want to “cut the city back out of the US, get it independent again.”
The polyglot restiveness and chronic tension are set on fire at the novel’s opening. Detective Joe Barrow, who grew up an orphan of mixed race, is called to a gory, inexplicable murder. The foggy rooftop crime scene is evoked lyrically, the blood a “frosting of granular pink from the snow.” The body, “most definitely in its chicken-neck paleness takata,” is positioned on a sort of pyramid. Its chest is “a cavity reamed out, a space from which something had been torn.” With a shudder, we realize that the murderer has removed the victim’s heart.
This Aztec symbolism could seem lurid in less sensitive hands, but Spufford is thoughtful, gentle even when writing of violence. Besides, the detective soon discovers—and this should be no spoiler for us locals—that all this is staging. The takouma are not Aztec at all. It was the Jesuits, coming north with their memory of the Aztecs, who “fixed it here, in purged and Catholicized form, as a kind of image of what civilizational greatness in the New World might be.” In Spufford’s imagining, the Jesuits converted the original Cahokians, using their theological sleight of hand to draw lines of correspondence between sun worship and Catholicism.
Spufford lets the takouma leader, called the Man of the Sun, be deep and wise. Later, a refreshing cynicism will kick in. But early on, the Man says, “Without the meaning of things, without the stories people tell about them—that people believe about them—you can’t understand events, detective.” Symbolism, he says later, “has consequences. It gives a nudge to the world. It makes things happen.”
He had made the author’s point for him.
When Barrow wearies of all the symbolism, a professor tells him: “That’s what you get for living where the mythic order of things is alive and well. You want less magic, you should move to Indianapolis.”
The Man calls Barrow Thrown-Away Boy, offering him one of their stories as a way to pull a strong sense of self from a desolate childhood. He does not even know the language of his own people. Page by page, we watch him slowly, guardedly align with his heritage. He has already connected with his taklousa blood, through music, and he lives in that sector, surrounded by “bright lights, chatter on the sidewalks, plate glass behind which waiters came and went, cars disgorging parties in evening clothes, threads of music weaving through the bouncing air.”
The takouma live in “the dense unmappable windings of the Quarters, the four districts that surrounded Old Cahokia’s central Plaza like the cloven pieces of an apple.” When Barrow enters, he finds “walls on either side closer in than the stretch of his arms, made of the bricks the Jesuits had taught the first Cahokians to bake from the Mississippi clay.”
As he learns to navigate this neighborhood, we build a mental map of a place where St. Louis is only “a church, a gas station and a general store, clustered under dripping oak trees. There was a sign put up by the state historical society saying the place had been founded by a French settler in 16-something. It didn’t seem to have grown much since.”
The energy comes instead from the Mound, the sacred land, “the buildings around it deliberately hemmed it in close, in a collar of unclimbable walls.” Outside the city, there is a “tight, ancient net of embankments and maize fields and canals and steeples.” Inside, there is a Cahokia Pacific Railroad, a Cahokia National Guard, a Cardinal Archbishop of Cahokia. The rooftop where the corpse was placed belongs to one of the Three Sisters: buildings governing Land and Water and Power, all collectively owned. When takouma need land, they take out leases.
The takata sector will be familiar, with German-Americans muttering scheisse whenever they are foiled. At civic events, one sees “all the silk flags of the city’s parishes,” including “the old harp standard of St. Patrick’s Brigade,” its Hibernian Order plaids as green as emeralds.
Also familiar is the landscape, with a murky river “still chilled by winter but waking up” and a fog rising up from the silt that digests dead trees and dead people and breathes them out in a “dense, soft vapor that behaved like a live thing itself.”
Too much? Not for me. I can feel that Cahokia fog, with “smoke in it, and gas fumes, and cooking grease.” Behind it runs the novel’s soundtrack: jazz described so eloquently, you hear it as you read. “Dolphus and Stukeley weaving clarinet and cornet together into danceable filigree, high, higher, highest, getting into one of those shared trances where competition and cooperation worked so close they couldn’t be distinguished.” “Alma’s contralto coming thick and rich as the silty water, the clarinet and the cornet bending down through it like light beams in the water, nothing for the piano to do but slow harmonies, with just that little bit of drag on them to add to the richness.”
Spufford even uses jazz to convey the gaiety of the wealthy, whose fundraiser party pix we are still forced to ogle in 2024. Here, they have been locked up for safety during a night of unrest and now spill onto the pavement, dinner jackets rumpled and sequins askew: “A chitter of drumsticks on the cymbal edge, a glissando or three in the high octaves, that’s how you’d play the scene,” Barrow muses.
And after a night of extraordinary sex, his body spent and his heart light, Barrow “needed Joplin’s walk into joy. Meditative but not slow; the sound of the world in deft order, flowing as if the left hand and right hand only had to shake the beauty out.” Clearly, he would rather be a jazz pianist than a sad, determinedly fair cop. When he starts playing one of the sad ballads of the takata, he notes that “it only needed a nudge, a twitch to the rhythm and the right chords, to be entirely recognizable as a blues, the human heart and its sorrow doing its damnedest to extract the same dues in song, no matter how people tried to keep themselves split up.”
Yet split they are, and the takouma can do terrible things in the name of survival. Though they have endured, they remain vulnerable to “the great unspoken principle of American history, detective,” says the Man. “Which is, if it’s worth having, the red man shall not be allowed to keep it.”
Here, their takouma values—ruthlessly spiritual—are allowed to drown the greed of the takata. The idea feels especially potent in a city where that possibility was lost.
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.