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Man with an Axe

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

As a mystery writer, Jon A. Jackson has more or less claimed the landscape of Detroit as his territory. He has made it his own over time, and through the splendid series of novels he has written that feature the character and voice of Detective Sergeant “Fang” Mulheisen. So it is only logical that Jackson eventually takes on one of the great lingering mysteries of that landscape: the disappearance, in 1975, of labor leader Jimmy Hoffa.

Because Jackson is a serious and important novelist, however, he makes MAN WITH AN AXE more than a conjecture upon the whys and hows of one man’s vanishment. Jackson also involves his detective/hero and his novel with the whole matter of history and historical narrative. Detective Mulheisen finds himself investigating not the Hoffa case, but the story of the Hoffa case, as narrated to him through the journals of his old and now-dead colleague, Grootka. These journals come to Mulheisen gradually and purposefully, left as a sort of historical legacy to Mulheisen by Grootka, who apparently (if one believes Grootka’s history) had direct involvement in Hoffa’s disappearance; they also provide a version of history that Mulheisen must try to reconcile with the story that he has come to accept as the historical record.

Jackson enriches his novel with the rich detail of the detroit jazz culture. As always, Jackson is interested in what makes his city tick; because so much of the urban spirit of Detroit is wrapped up in the music of that place, Jackson immerses readers in the complex traditions of that music. Indeed, the “axe” in MAN WITH AN AXE comes to have several meanings before the novel’s end.

Ultimately, perhaps the finest thing about this novel is the compelling voice of “Fang” Mulheisen. It is Mulheisen who tells us this story, and it is Mulheisen whom readers come to believe as storyteller and as historian. Jackson has succeeded in creating— and sustaining—a vital, human, engaging character in this detective/hero.