Atmospheric ... Spufford, one of our most powerful writers of wayward historical fiction, sets his book — a hard-boiled crime story — in an America that’s recognizable yet disquietingly not ... Weirder and more austere in tone than Spufford’s preceding works of fiction ... World-building 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 comes to the rescue of this novel and its dark, desperate promise of American redemption ... Spufford clearly has a blast in Cahokia Jazz, summoning up the language and all the traditional tropes of a 1920s hard-boiled tale ... Many of us will recognize our own held-breath bafflement, caught, as we are, on the darkling plain of our own barely believable times.
...an intricate, suspenseful and moving story that rises from the mists of America’s prehistory and morphs into an alternate version of America’s story. Part world building, part detective noir, part savage critique of our country’s (real) history, Spufford builds his creation on the foundations of a real place that grew, thrived and then vanished ... Cahokia Jazz takes on a lot, and its ambitions are huge. Does it work? For this reader, it does. Spufford has a sure grasp of the perverted politics and relentless grind of the wheels of capitalism, circa 1922. His dialogue snaps, and he can riff on just about anything, including Joe’s avocation as a jazz pianist, with authority. There might be a little too much description, and long, learned, expository passages coming out of the mouths of police sergeants. But Spufford, whose acclaimed 2016 novel Golden Hill sent up 18th century Colonial America, keeps his engine running with action and intrigue, romance and suspense, and his sense of place is spellbinding.
Inevitably, a detective noir set in a speculative American province filled with an Indigenous population, and featuring a half-Indigenous detective, will recall Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union—a great book that also trips over its obsessive details. (Perhaps to cushion this comparison, Spufford nods to Chabon’s Sitka early on.) Yet the complex political setup here owes more to James Ellroy’s hyper-stylized Underworld U.S.A. trilogy than to Chabon ... The world of Cahokia is rich and complex, racially, politically and spiritually. Spufford does a nice job with the emotional tug of war between the native Cahokian religion and the superimposed Catholicism. Unfortunately, these details drown the investigation, which is often rendered in a pitter-patter exposition that can make Barrow seem downright naïve. Cahokia Jazz is a novel of dualities, something that is both its triumph and its shortcoming.