A New York Times Book Review Editors' Choice and a Paris Review Staff Pick
A January Pick by Salon, Town and Country, Southern Living, and LA Magazine
New Orleans, 1918. The birth of jazz, the Spanish flu, an ax murderer on the loose. The lives of a traumatized cop, a conflicted Mafia matriarch, and a brilliant trumpeter converge—and the Crescent City gets the rich, dark, sweeping novel it so deserves.
From one of the most inventive writers of his generation, King Zeno is a historical crime novel and a searching inquiry into man’s dreams of immortality.
New Orleans, a century ago: a city determined to reshape its destiny and, with it, the nation’s. Downtown, a new American music is born. In Storyville, prostitution is outlawed and the police retake the streets with maximum violence. In the Ninth Ward, laborers break ground on a gigantic canal that will split the city, a work of staggering human ingenuity intended to restore New Orleans’s faded mercantile glory. The war is ending and a prosperous new age dawns. But everything is thrown into chaos by a series of murders committed by an ax-wielding maniac with a peculiar taste in music.
The ax murders scramble the fates of three people from different corners of town. Detective William Bastrop is an army veteran haunted by an act of wartime cowardice, recklessly bent on redemption. Isadore Zeno is a jazz cornetist with a dangerous side hustle. Beatrice Vizzini is the widow of a crime boss who yearns to take the family business straight. Each nurtures private dreams of worldly glory and eternal life, their ambitions carrying them into dark territories of obsession, paranoia, and madness.
In New Orleans, a city built on swamp, nothing stays buried long.
Set in New Orleans in the wake of World War I, Rich's spirited third novel (after Odds Against Tomorrow) contrasts the luminous early years of jazz with a number of particularly American darknesses, most notably a prototypical serial killer who cleaves his victims' heads with an axe. The novel's three main story lines follow army veteran and detective Bill Bastrop, hellbent on finding the killer; a mafia matriarch, Beatrice Vizzini, who's trying to turn her business straight; and the titular Izzy Zeno, a struggling jazz musician forced into petty theft to make ends meet. Much of the novel's first third explores each character's particular stakes and family situation, introducing Bastrop's increasingly estranged wife, Izzy's soon-to-be-pregnant wife, and Beatrice's simple-minded and domineering son, Georgio. After an encounter with one of Bastrop's former war buddies turns violent, the plot gathers considerable momentum, setting the three characters on the requisite collision course that ends at the construction site for the city's new canal. Though the story is a bit too neat, the New Orleans setting is well-drawn and memorable and Rich excels at immersing the reader in the narrative.