A Delicious Mystery Set in an Alternate USA Where Native Americans Held On to Power

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Cahokia Jazz, British writer Francis Spufford’s third novel, is a smoky, brooding noir set in the 1920s, but not an entirely recognizable 1920s. In our world, Cahokia is a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Illinois, the location of a lost city, once the biggest in North America, centered around massive, thousand-year-old earthworks across the river from St. Louis. In Spufford’s world, it’s still a bustling metropolis, full of scheming politicians, bootleggers, labor organizers, torch singers, and intellectuals.

Spufford’s piano-playing hero, Joe Barrow, an orphan of Black and Native American descent, is a police detective and a newcomer to the city, and when he and his cynical partner catch a particularly gruesome murder case, they’re plunged into the thorny politics of Cahokia, where friction between the Native residents and the growing white population—including a resurgent Ku Klux Klan—threatens the city’s fragile independence. Cahokia Jazz combines the intricate plot and burly action of an old-fashioned hardboiled detective novel with Spufford’s dreamy, lustrous prose, summoning an irresistible city lost to time and chance. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Slate: How did you land upon this particular premise?

Francis Spufford: I’ve always been interested in the idea of hinge points and of worlds which seem inevitable vanishing in a moment. And I was aware of the real Cahokia—the archaeological site on the other bank of the Mississippi from Saint Louis—that it had been a medieval city on a large scale. That is not the default mental picture many people have of what Native American and Indigenous societies were like. Had European diseases not spread virulently, often before European settlers themselves arrived in person, there would have been a very different human landscape greeting European settlers in the Americas. In particular, the Mississippi Valley would have been absolutely full of busy towns and maize farmers.

What if the United States had instead been maybe a bit like Canada or New Zealand, in which there had continued to be an Indigenous presence that was just too big to be pushed to the margins like that? What would it be like?

The cover of the book Cahokia Jazz has a picture of hands playing a piano and is only black and white and red.

Even a lot of Americans don’t realize that there were Native American cities along the Mississippi River that not only existed before European colonizers arrived, but that actually rose and fell during the time period before that. The people of your Cahokia have an origin myth that reminds me of Britain’s old legendary origin myth about someone arriving from … was it Rome?

It’s someone from Troy. It’s a way that medieval English people gave themselves an imaginative stake in Homer and the Trojan War. I was indeed thinking of that. Their story is that they were founded by an Aztec prince fleeing a plague on a raft up the Mississippi. It’s a garbled memory of the spread of European diseases—except that in the altered world where Cahokia Jazz takes place, smallpox comes first in the much less virulent variety, which people mostly recover from. The story has allowed this city culture to link itself to the big and famous city cultures of the Aztecs in Mesoamerica. Uncovering the fact that that story is not literally true—that’s not where the city came from—is one of the strands of the detective plot.

One of the things that people keep saying to your detective main character, Joe Barrow, is how important symbols and myths are.

I wanted this book to be partly an enchanted story in itself, but one that was realistic about just how tangled and unreliable stories are, too. I wanted the Native American political culture in the city to be just as prone to argument, disputed versions of their own stories, being misled—all of the things that human cultures do when they’ve got a story that’s important, but may not be quite factual. As a detective trying to deal with an extremely racially charged murder, Barrow finds that he needs to negotiate not just the facts of the case, but a world of competing perceptions about the case. The murder is set up to look like an Aztec human sacrifice, so it’s highly relevant that the Cahokians are not, in fact, Aztecs, or descended from Aztecs at all.

I wanted it to be a story about the importance of the symbols people live by and how inevitable it is that there is a symbolic order of things. It’s not “primitive,” and it’s also not optional. “Just the facts, ma’am” would not do it in Cahokia, and I don’t really think it would do it anywhere else, either.

Nevertheless, detective stories are about facts and establishing things that actually happened, a purpose that is at war with the power of myth and symbol in this city.

Right. This is the first time I’ve written something with the shape of a crime novel, and the crime novel itself as a form is unforgiving in its requirement that you take the facts seriously. I bumped into the great Scottish detective writer Val McDermid at a book festival while I was writing it, and she politely asked what I was working on. Nervously, I said, “I’m trying to write a crime novel.” You could see her bristling slightly, looking for signs of condescension from the literary fiction person, and she said, “Are you finding that difficult?” And I said, “Yes,” and she said, “Good.”

One of the funniest things in the novel is the way the three different newspapers in the town cover the events. There’s a conservative tabloid called the Post that’s a lot like the New York Post.

That was a complete coincidence. I wasn’t at all intending to malign the marvelous journalism of the New York Post.

People often seem think of our current situation—of a media with dueling narratives about what happened or who was responsible for violence—as something recent. But American early-20th-century newspapers really were like that.

They were extremely potent and irresponsible and tabloidy. But I really enjoyed writing the responsible adult business-class newspaper, which is constantly trying to find calm ways of describing outrageous events and taking the symbolic dimension out of them.

The New York Times of Cahokia! Let’s get into the political status of Cahokia. It’s the capital of a state that is part of United States, formerly an independent nation that joined the Union at the end of the Civil War.

Yes, although the first and important thing to say is that I’m writing this book from a long way away and I wrote it during the pandemic, so I was unable even to visit the locations until towards the end of the writing. I’m aware that I am one of the least well-placed people in the world to engage directly with an actual Indigenous culture. I’d have felt very peculiar about adapting a real Indigenous culture for the book. I’m projecting something which our world has not got, which is what the Mississippian farming culture that Hernando de Soto saw in 1540 might have looked like if it had been still thriving over the centuries that followed.

They’ve managed to stay independent and to fight off various attempts to annex them through the 17th and 18th and first half of the 19th century. But they realize as the Civil War is happening that they had better pick a side. So they conquer Vicksburg themselves as a kind of wedding present to the Union, and come in on their own terms with a state constitution that lets them keep various things that are important to them, like the collective ownership of land.

Did the Mississippian culture have collective ownership of the land?

We know that they were in a sort of proto-state-forming stage, and that they were organized in townships. I needed something organized enough to stand up to the pressure of white settlement, so I made their princes unnaturally benevolent and politically brilliant. I stuck my thumb on the scales by giving them a dynasty of subtle, brilliant leaders who were marvelous at playing a weak hand generation after generation.

They have an interesting syncretic religion that combines Catholicism with their original solar faith. What made you decide to make them Catholic?

One of the rare bright spots in the religious history of the new world is the Jesuit cities built for and with the Guaraní Indians down in what’s now Paraguay, which for about 100 years existed as sort of semi-independent places with an army which fended off slave raiders and other dangers. And I needed Cahokia to have some international sponsorship. They needed to have outside backing. So I thought if they get converted by Jesuits from Mexico, then through the 18th century the Catholic world is going to regard them as a useful spoiler to the Protestant colonies on the Eastern Seaboard, and would be willing to send them gunsmiths and forges and printing presses and useful stuff like that.

And I’m interested in religion anyway, because it is the system of symbols and metaphors in which I think some truth is caught like gold dust in a sieve. The Jesuits were actively looking for ways to come up with viable cultural mixtures for Christianity. They were busy translating it into Confucian terms in China in the 17th century, for example, and in Latin America.
I thought if you combined this with a Native American civilization that stayed independent, you’d get a very interesting mixture: genuinely Catholic, but with another symbol system poking through it in a shadowy or not-so-shadowy way. And that too would provide something for a detective to negotiate.

You’d still have their traditional political power, manifested through a man who stood for the sun and a woman who stood for the moon, and that would map beautifully onto various noir-genre things, such as powerful men in mansions and femme fatales who come slowly down flights of stairs with a scowl on their faces.

Your main character is this racially ambiguous detective, an outsider who goes through the city, bearing witness to it, which is also a common noir device. He reminds me of Ralph Ellison’s invisible man in that so many people are trying to claim him.

Which makes the question of what he is in himself and to himself urgent and ultimately decisive. Some of the people who want to claim him and put their agendas on him may be sympathetic, and even people you’d be politically on the side of, but it still doesn’t quite settle the question of what he’s supposed to be to himself.

You’re British, but two of the three novels you’ve written have not only been set in America, they’re also about being American, about race and identity and what they mean here. What’s the fascination?

Because you’re the metropolis. Because you’ve been the metropolis for more than a century now, and American ideals—and the complex, ironic, often tragic way that they’re contradicted by American history—produce a story which is important for the whole planet. I am up there in the peanut gallery like the rest of the planet looking at the American story and, increasingly, over the last few years, wishing it well and dreading its possible corruptions. Like a lot of leftish Europeans, I used to be able to afford a comfy, mildly snotty anti-Americanism, but the last decade or two have been extremely educational about how much, in fact, we need a viable and functional America with its principles intact. It’s not just Americans who’ve got a stake in the American story.