Jan 20, 2010
John Litwelier is the esteemed music critic who covered the early days of the AACM and has written about all manner of jazz for Downbeat, the Reader, the Sun-Times, the Tribune, etc., along with a book about free jazz and a biography of Ornette Coleman. Now he’s published his first novel, Mojo Snake Minuet, and it’s a murder mystery unlike any other murder mystery.
First of all, the sleuth is a music critic, and there are lots of music critic jokes. (At one point the hero faces a drawn gun; “he could imagine the headline: ‘Musician Kills Critic’ — it had to happen someday, but why me?”) So we have a satire of the music critic racket, which is badly needed and long overdue, but the satire doesn’t end there.
The central conceit of the novel is that black people run America and white people are the oppressed minority. There are white civil rights and white power movements, white alcoholics are hounded and imprisoned, and degenerate opera arias are performed in dingy nightclubs. At times the conceit is revealing, at times cumbersome, at times a little absurd, but it quickly subsides behind a cast of lively characters, with sharp, intelligent dialogue and wild action.
There’s Yakub Yakub, the handsome, callow young critic, his fecklessness shielded by a grandiose ego, who manages to be both laughable and likeable. There’s his boss, Chief Danyal Kaida, the eccentric and autocratic owner of the Chicago Daily Messenger, who manipulates the city’s political elite as he looks out from the top-floor office in the Messenger Tower near the Michigan Avenue bridge. There’s Yakub’s old flame, Aisha Salim, an investigative reporter for the Chicago Daily Drum — and courageous supporter of civil rights for whites. There are a couple of pop divas, a couple of corrupt cops, a gangster kingpin and a renegade voodoo sect.
There’s a Back To Europe movement led by Bishop Joseph Johnson of the Church of St. Elvis (on 47th Street) and a thuggish white studies professor named Atilla Galahad.
The plot is complicated not just by a variety of crooks who are after the same treasure, but by two separate investigators, after the certified licensed private witch Shadow Mbalabala joins the chase. We meet him in his shabby office over the Wabash el, where he’s reading a hardboiled witch thriller. In contrast to Yakub, he is quietly competent, jaded, sardonic, and a bit run-down.
It’s all wonderfully entertaining – but does the upending of our society’s racial paradigm serve any purpose beyond entertainment, and a writer’s exercise? I don’t know. It does put things in a different light, to say the least. It makes you think, in between laughs and thrills.
Litweiler will read from the book at 57th Street Books, 1301 E. 57th Street, Thursday, January 21, at 6 p.m.