A CUTTING ACCOUNT OF NEW ORLEANS POLICE & POLITICIANS
The Axman of New Orleans
by Chuck Hustmyre
An axman loose in New Orleans brutally murdering citizens in their beds and the police don’t have a clue . . . or worse, don’t want him caught? This may sound like the sort of grisly serial killer fiction that springs from the imaginations of James Patterson or Patricia Cornwell, but this novel is actually historical fiction based on a series of unsolved attacks that terrorized New Orleans from 1911 to 1919.
I’ve said in previous reviews that I’m not a huge consumer of genre fiction, but I met Chuck Hustmyre at a recent Reading Between the Wines event sponsored by Fleur de Lit and was intrigued when he offered a review copy. A former federal agent, Hustmyre confessed to teaching himself to write by reading books from Barnes & Nobles. Kudos to his initiative, for he has gone on to have great success publishing countless articles, several screenplays, and books of true crime fiction including Killer With A Badge, a story of a killer within NOPD for which, surprisingly, NOPD wasn’t completely cooperative in turning over records. When he stumbled upon the Axman Murders during research, he was intrigued by this seldom mentioned menace who has been described as the American Jack the Ripper (someone even sent a similar letter to local papers although it can’t be proved it was the killer or a hoax). His plans to write a non-fiction account, however, were thwarted when Katrina wiped out so many public records (though many facts are of public record such as the Tulane fraternity that printed a rebuttal inviting the axman to visit, promising to leave a window open so he wouldn’t damage the front door).
Writing The Axman of New Orleans as historic fiction, however, has its advantages. It allows the author to create two strong central characters, a brave but jaded cop and a relentless reporter, both of whose fathers died tragically–perhaps as part of the conspiracy that weaves through the story. It also allows Hustmyre to draw conclusions from informed speculation that could only be presented as conjecture otherwise. With this creative freedom, the author paints a picture of local police and political corruption that would be difficult to prove but is frightening in the hypothetical. It also allows him to center his story around the strongest suspect that emerged after the killings stopped. Although involvement was never proved, the coincidences surrounding his life and death are intriguing, providing the author a firm anchor to ground his speculative tale.
In the end, the uncertainty of historical fiction is frustratingly enticing. This book may have lost me early if simply sensational and exploitative fabrication. If it were non-fiction, I would have vetted the reliability of the author and either accepted or rejected his thesis and moved on. With historical fiction, though, like ‘based on reality’ Hollywood movies, I find myself tormented wondering what is truth and what is fiction. It can be vexing but it keeps your attention, and Hustmyre does a great job keeping the reader engaged.
In fact, a more subtle title and cover may have done the book a service, for both seem to detract from the book’s craft. Although not glittering literary prose, Hustmyre’s language is stark and raw rather than histrionic as the cover and title may insinuate. Hustmyer obviously learned the lessons of idol Elmore Leonard. At times he can over-describe. His background in law enforcement provides great insight into process but occasionally waxes so didactic that it breaks through the ‘fourth wall’ of suspended disbelief. The structure of chapters alternating between present-tense first-person and flashback third-person is confusing at first and sometimes makes it difficult to follow the flow of events. There are multiple victims, a growing stable of characters, and a complex conspiracy so it is difficult to keep it all straight. Although I enjoyed the book, it wasn’t one I’ll pick up and immediately read again, yet to fully fit the pieces together it warrants a second read.
Despite a few small flaws, though, I thoroughly enjoyed The Axman of New Orleans. It didn’t open my eyes or change my perspective on New Orleans like some of the great books I’ve read, but it’s also not dumbed down or insulting like so much easily digestible mainstream genre fiction. The climax packs an emotional and tragic punch that lands because the characters, while not wildly original, rise far enough above cliché to make you care, and the ending is satisfying. The ultimate reason I’m not a big genre fiction fan is that I nearly always feel let down by the ending (I was told I absolutely had to read The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo only to find it one of the most meandering, drawn-out, and ridiculous let-downs ever). I wasn’t blown away or left stunned, but nor did I feel cheated even though I felt like it was somewhat apparent where things were going. We knew the suspects, we just weren’t sure of their motives and connections to one another.
In the end, the strengths of The Axman of New Orleans far outweight its deficiencies. It is strong enough to appeal to a fringe crossover literary crowd and a sure thing for lovers of true crime, mystery, and serial killer fiction.