King Zeno

Nathaniel Rich

14 November 2019
400 pages


New Orleans, 1918. The birth of jazz, the Spanish flu, an axe murderer on the loose. The lives of a traumatized cop, a conflicted Mafia matriarch, and a brilliant trumpeter converge. In Nathaniel Rich's King Zeno, the Crescent City gets the rich, dark, sweeping novel it so deserves.

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 axe-wielding maniac with a peculiar taste in music.

The axe 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.

Hugely readable . . . King Zeno would make a great Netflix series, a murky pre-Prohibition thriller poised somewhere between LA Confidential and True Detective.
The novel, like a city, somehow coheres, as Rich never loses control of the riotous raw material . . . Rich is a gifted portraitist of his three main characters . . . This is a novel with a high body count, but it has far too much energy ever to feel morbid.
A groaning board of tasty literary treats . . . King Zeno offers a gritty, panoramic portrait of the Big Easy . . . Full of sharply rendered characters, gallows humor and finely observed descriptions . . . The fact that Rich comes so close to executing this ambitious literary banquet is in itself a remarkable achievement.