Written by Heath Lowrance — Now here is a book with some pedigree. In her top five crime novels of 2011, Eva Dolan (aka LoiteringWithIntent) picked as number five The Adventures of Cash Laramie and Gideon Miles, a collection of stories about two US Marshals. Number 4 in that list was another short story collection, Dig Ten Graves by Heath Lowrance. That author went on to take the character of Gideon Miles on his own adventure in the well regarded Miles to Little Ridge. Now Miles and Lowrance are reunited again in this excellent novella published by Beat To A Pulp.
The year is 1921 and the setting is New Orleans. Gideon Miles, celebrated war hero and the first black US Marshal, is now 67 and has left his days of man hunting behind him. The jazz club he runs with his wife Violet has established itself as one of the premier venues in the city, so much so that the great musicians of the era, like the young Louis Armstrong, can be heard there. Business is booming in spite of – or perhaps because of – prohibition. However, Miles is finding the humdrum routine of running the club a drag and part of him looks back fondly on the unpredictable and dangerous work of being a marshal.
In the red light district of Storyville a psychotic killer is butchering prostitutes with an axe. The story is based on an actual case – The Axeman of New Orleans was a bit like Louisiana’s own Jack the Ripper back in the day. There were eight killings in total between May 1918 and October 1919 and the killer was never caught.
In this fictionalised version of the case, there been three killings in a matter of weeks and the police have shown no interest in investigating. Furthermore all of the madams have to pay protection to the Black Hand, run by the gangster Charlie Matranga, and they will not help either. Out of desperation one of the brothel keepers, Miss Tilly, tries to hire Miles to investigate but at first he is reluctant. He reasons his Marshal job was about tracking criminals through the wild west, not doing detective work. However, his pride forces him to take the case when he is warned off looking into the business of Mr Matranga by three goons. Miles may be old and semi-retired but nobody threatens him and his wife.
The break in the case comes when Miles learns from the police that there had been an earlier spate of axe killings four years previously, before Miles moved to New Orleans, and that the killings stopped abruptly before anybody was caught. What follows is a fast-paced thriller as Miles and the killer brace each other in their respective turfs before a bloody climax in Miss Tilly’s brothel.
Lowrance really delivers the goods here. For such a quick read – it took me about ninety minutes – he provides a wealth of detail about jazz, racial prejudice, criminality and the effects of prohibition which really brings 1920s New Orleans to life. The result is a darkly flavoured atmosphere that mimics brilliantly the twisted psychosis of our killer. My only complaint is I didn’t want the story to end. Happily there is a hint of a Cash Laramie and Gideon Miles reunion on the cards. That will be something to look forward to.
Beat to a Pulp
CFL Rating: 4 Stars