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"Cahokia Jazz" | Reviewed by William Winkler

The year is 1922. Warren G. Harding is president of the United States. The FBI is barely a decade old. The village of St. Louis is a store, a church, and a tiny railway station on the tracks leading westward from the Mississippi River bridge...


Welcome to the alternative universe created by Francis Spufford in his new novel “Cahokia Jazz.”

Spufford’s narrative is set in the city of Cahokia, capital of the state of the same name, a state comprising portions of what we know as Illinois, Missouri, Arkansas, Tennessee, and Kentucky. Cahokia’s population is 60 percent takouma, persons of indigenous, native American descent, as well as equal percentages of taklousa, those of African ancestry and takata, of European heritage.

The American west and southwest is largely populated and governed by takouma. In Spufford’s world the 16th and 17th century indigenous American native nations were only minimally affected by smallpox and other diseases introduced by waves of European explorers and conquerors. They were, however, heavily influenced and converted by Jesuit missionaries who were able to link their Aztec and other Mesoamerican religions to the Catholic faith.

The story opens as detective (and nascent jazz pianist) Joe Barrow, a racial mixture of takouma and taklousa, investigates a grisly murder which on its surface appears to be identical to an Aztec sacrifice. But in Cahokia nothing is ever as it seems.

As Barrow’s investigation progresses it becomes more likely that the murder was staged in a manner likely to inflame the growing takata population, and to provoke an uprising by the white-robed Klan against the takouma leadership.

When the Klan revolt occurs it is thwarted, largely because Barrow’s pursuit of the murderer has led him into the highest echelons of takouma governance, residents of the symbolic houses of the Sun and the Moon, both of whom travel about the city in Duesenberg limousines.

“Cahokia Jazz” is a skillful combination of historic and speculative fiction. Its British author has obviously done careful research to get the details of this aspect of American history correct, and in doing so has created a world that will draw the reader in, page after clever page.


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