Francis Spufford’s “Cahokia Jazz”

A stunning alternate history that fires on every cylinder.

Cory Doctorow
4 min readDec 4, 2023
The Simon and Schuster cover for Frances Spufford’s ‘Cahokia Jazz.’

Tomorrow (Dec 5), I’m at Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill, NC, with my new solarpunk novel The Lost Cause, which’s Bill McKibben called “The first great YIMBY novel: perceptive, scientifically sound, and extraordinarily hopeful.”

Francis Spufford’s Cahokia Jazz is a fucking banger: it’s a taut, unguessable whuddunit, painted in ultrablack noir, set in an alternate Jazz Age in a world where indigenous people never ceded most the west to the USA. It’s got gorgeously described jazz music, a richly realized modern indigenous society, and a spectacular romance. It’s amazing:

Cahokia is the capital city of Deseret, a majority Catholic, majority indigenous state at the western frontier of the USA. It swirls with industry, wealth, and racial politics, serving as both a refuge from Jim Crow and a hive of Klan activity. Joe Barrow is new in town, a veteran who survived the trenches of WWI and moved to Cahokia with his army buddy, Phineas Drummond, where they both quickly rose through the police ranks to become detectives.

We meet Joe and Phin on a frigid government building rooftop in the predawn night, attending a grisly murder. Someone has laid out a man across a skylight, cut his throat, split his chest open, and excised his heart. This Aztec-inspired killing points at Cahokian indigenous independence gangs, some of whom embrace an apocryphal tale of being descended from Mesoamerican conquerors in the distant past. That makes this more than a mere ugly killing — it’s a political flashpoint.

The Klan insists that Cahokia’s system of communal land ownership is a form of communism (Russia never ceded Alaska in this world, so the USSR is now extending tendrils across the Bering Strait). They also insist that Cahokians’ reverence for the Sun and the Moon — indigenous royals who have formally ceded power to elected leaders — makes them a threat to democracy. Finally, the Cahokians’ fusion of Catholocism with traditional faith makes the spritually suspect. A rooftop blood-sacrifice could cause simmering political tension to boil over, and for ever white oligarch drooling at the thought of enclosing the shared land of Deseret, there are a thousand useful idiots in white hoods.

Joe and Phin now have to solve the murder — before the city explodes. But Phin seems more interested in pinning the case on an Indian — any Indian — than he is on solving the murder. And Joe — an indigenous orphan who has neither the language nor the culture that the Cahokians expect him to have — is reappraising his long habit of deferring to Phin.

This is the setup for a delicious whodunnit with a large helping of what if…? but Spufford doesn’t stop there. Joe, you see, is a jazz pianist, and his old bandmates are back in town, and one thing leads to another and before you know it he’s sitting in with them at a speakeasy. This gives Spufford a chance to roll out some of the most evocative, delicious descriptions of jazz since Doctorow’s Ragtime (no relation):

It’s not just the jazz. This is a book that fires on every cylinder: there’s brilliant melee (and a major battle set-piece that’s stunning), a love storyline, gunplay, and a murder mystery that kept me guessing right to the end. There’s fakeouts and comeuppances, bravery and treachery, and above all, a sense of possibility.

Most of what I know about Cahokia — and the giant mounds it left behind near St Louis — I learned from David Graeber and David Wengrow’s brilliant work of heterodox history, The Dawn of Everything:

Graeber and Wengrow’s project is to make us reassess the blank spaces in our historical record, the ways of living that we have merely guessed at, based on fragments and suppositions. They point out that these inferences are vastly overdetermined, and that there are many other guesses that fit the facts equally well, or even better. This is a powerful message, one that insists that history — and thus the future — is contingent and up for grabs. We don’t have to live the way we do, and we haven’t always lived this way. We might live differently in the future.

In evoking a teeming, indigenous metropolis, conjured out of minor historical divergences, Spufford follows Graeber and Wengrow in cracking apart inevitability and letting all the captive possibility flow out. The fact that he does this in a first rate novel makes the accomplishment doubly impressive — and enjoyable.

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