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Reviews of Cahokia Jazz by Francis Spufford

Cahokia Jazz

A Novel

by Francis Spufford

Cahokia Jazz by Francis Spufford X
Cahokia Jazz by Francis Spufford
  • Critics' Opinion:

    Readers' Opinion:

     Not Yet Rated
  • Published:
    Feb 2024, 464 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Joe Hoeffner
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About this Book

Book Summary

From "one of the most original minds in contemporary literature" (Nick Hornby) the bestselling and award-winning author of Golden Hill delivers a noirish detective novel set in the 1920s that reimagines how American history would be different if, instead of being decimated, indigenous populations had thrived.

Like his earlier novel Golden Hill, Francis Spufford's Cahokia Jazz inhabits a different version of America, now through the lens of a subtly altered 1920s—a fully imagined world full of fog, cigarette smoke, dubious motives, danger, dark deeds. And in the main character of Joe Barrow, we have a hero of truly epic proportions, a troubled soul to fall in love with as you are swept along by a propulsive and brilliantly twisty plot.

On a snowy night at the end of winter, Barrow and his partner find a body on the roof of a skyscraper. Down below, streetcar bells ring, factory whistles blow, Americans drink in speakeasies and dance to the tempo of modern times. But this is Cahokia, the ancient indigenous city beside the Mississippi living on as a teeming industrial metropolis, filled with people of every race and creed. Among them, peace holds. Just about. But that corpse on the roof will spark a week of drama in which this altered world will spill its secrets and be brought, against a soundtrack of jazz clarinets and wailing streetcars, either to destruction or rebirth.

Cahokia Jazz

With the building dark beneath it, the skylight on the roof of the Land Trust was a pyramid of pure black. Down the smooth black of the glass, something sticky had run, black on black, all the way down into the crust of soft spring snow at Barrow's feet, where it puddled in sunken loops and pools like molasses. On top, a contorted mass was somehow pinned or perched. But the moon was going down on the far side of the Mound, and dawn was an hour and more away. The whole scene on the roof was a clot of shadows, and the wind was full of wet flakes. Along the way, at the small obstacle of a couple of cops on a roof, the snow caked Barrow's coat and got in his eyes, plastered Drummond's back where he'd turned it as a windbreak. Drummond was trying for a flame from his lighter, but even with his hat shielding the flint every spark was instantly quenched.

'Joe, can you go git the patrolman's flashlight?'

'Sure, Phin. Hold on.'

Barrow stepped carefully back towards the little ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide will contain spoilers!
  1. The novel begins by quoting a fictionalized Better Business Bureau guide to the city of Cahokia about the terms that denote the three major groups in its population: the takouma, the taklousa, and the takata. How does this immerse us in the world within Cahokia Jazz, and how does it differ from our world? What is the significance of different racial and ethnic titles in this world compared to ours?
  2. Examine cultural identity and cultural mixture in the novel. How does Barrow handle this and how does the world perceive him? What world events caused this city to form? How is this true also to many people's experiences in our world?
  3. When Barrow and Drummond investigate the murder victim on the skyscraper, we learn a bit about the language that ...
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BookBrowse Review


When it comes to alternate history, a compelling scenario only gets you so far. It's impressive to come up with a well-realized setting, one that might have existed had a few metaphorical butterflies not fluttered their wings, but simply describing how this strange new world came to be is not enough: a fascinating history textbook is still a history textbook. What's really impressive is using that setting as a jumping-off point for a cracking great story, the kind of story that turns a bit of bedtime reading into an all-nighter. With Cahokia Jazz, Spufford has done exactly that...continued

Full Review Members Only (626 words)

(Reviewed by Joe Hoeffner).

Media Reviews

Financial Times (UK)
[A] thrilling leap into alternative history ... a murder mystery that doesn't let up ... Like the city and world it depicts, this is a complicated book that offers many layers of pleasure... . Above all, there's the joy that comes from seeing a profusion of love and care poured into a fully original piece of work.

Independent (UK)
A marvellous deep-layered tale of treachery and trickery.

Irish Times
One of the signal achievements of this exceptional novel is the generosity and rigour with which it conjures up Cahokia. Spufford's creation absolutely feels like a place you could visit, or could have visited, if you happened to be travelling westward across the United States in the year of modernism, 1922... . As a piece of narrative entertainment, Cahokia Jazz is more or less unimprovable.

Mail on Sunday (UK)
Gutsy and atmospheric ... [a] generous slice of noir.

Sunday Telegraph (UK
Cahokia Jazz is a delight.

The Guardian, Best Fiction of 2023
Energetic and hugely enjoyable.

The Times (UK)
Stylish and ambitious … [Spufford's] most crowd-pleasing novel yet.

Times Literary Supplement (UK)
Cahokia Jazz is a novel about finding one's place in the world. It is haunting, wholly memorable, and will leave you with an ache.

Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
A richly entertaining take on the crime story, and a country that might've been.

Library Journal
Gritty.... Spufford has written an astounding homage to noir mysteries. A poignant drama-filled novel that his fans and readers of Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian will thoroughly enjoy.

Publishers Weekly (starred review)
This richly imagined and densely plotted story refreshes the crime genre and acts as a fun house mirror reflection of contemporary attitudes toward race—all set to a thumping jazz age soundtrack. Standing alongside Orson Scott Card's Alvin Maker series and Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policemen's Union, this is a challenging evocation of an America that never was.

Reader Reviews

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Beyond the Book

Mobilian Jargon

Large grassy mounds with staircase built inJoe Barrow, the protagonist of Francis Spufford's Cahokia Jazz, does not speak the titular city's common language, Anopa. He learns bits and pieces of it over the course of the novel, at around the same pace as the reader (heeding the suggestion of his friend Alan Jacobs, Spufford does not include a glossary). We learn the words for Native, Black, and white people (takouma, taklousa, and takata); the word for "warrior," which is the preferred title for Cahokia police officers (tastanagi); the word for "chief," in this context referring to the chief of police (miko).

As Spufford explains in the Notes and Acknowledgements at the end of Cahokia Jazz, Anopa became "something like a Swahili for the whole indigenous population at the ...

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Read-Alikes Full readalike results are for members only

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