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About The Book

Named a Best Book of the Year by The Guardian and The Financial Times

From “one of the most original minds in contemporary literature” (Nick Hornby) the bestselling and award-winning author of Golden Hill delivers a noirish detective novel set in the 1920s that reimagines how American history would be different if, instead of being decimated, indigenous populations had thrived.

Like his earlier novel Golden Hill, Francis Spufford’s Cahokia Jazz inhabits a different version of America, now through the lens of a subtly altered 1920s—a fully imagined world full of fog, cigarette smoke, dubious motives, danger, dark deeds. And in the main character of Joe Barrow, we have a hero of truly epic proportions, a troubled soul to fall in love with as you are swept along by a propulsive and brilliantly twisty plot.

On a snowy night at the end of winter, Barrow and his partner find a body on the roof of a skyscraper. Down below, streetcar bells ring, factory whistles blow, Americans drink in speakeasies and dance to the tempo of modern times. But this is Cahokia, the ancient indigenous city beside the Mississippi living on as a teeming industrial metropolis, filled with people of every race and creed. Among them, peace holds. Just about. But that corpse on the roof will spark a week of drama in which this altered world will spill its secrets and be brought, against a soundtrack of jazz clarinets and wailing streetcars, either to destruction or rebirth.

Reading Group Guide

This reading group guide for Cahokia Jazz includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.


On a snowy night at the end of winter in 1922, Joe Barrow and his partner find a body on the roof of a skyscraper. Down below, streetcar bells ring, factory whistles blow, Americans drink in speakeasies and dance to the tempo of modern times. But this is Cahokia, the ancient indigenous city beside the Mississippi living on as a teeming industrial metropolis, filled with people of every race and creed. Among them, peace holds. Just about. But that corpse on the roof will spark a week of drama in which this altered world will spill its secrets and be brought, against a soundtrack of jazz clarinets and wailing streetcars, either to destruction or rebirth.

Topics & Questions for Discussion

1. The novel begins by quoting a fictionalized Better Business Bureau guide to the city of Cahokia about the terms that denote the three major groups in its population: the takouma, the taklousa, and the takata. How does this immerse us in the world within Cahokia Jazz, and how does it differ from our world? What is the significance of different racial and ethnic titles in this world compared to ours?

2. Examine cultural identity and cultural mixture in the novel. How does Barrow handle this and how does the world perceive him? What world events caused this city to form? How is this true also to many people’s experiences in our world?

3. When Barrow and Drummond investigate the murder victim on the skyscraper, we learn a bit about the language that illustrates how our characters navigate their world. How does the Anopa language shape the novel, and what are some of the most interesting vernacular moments in this story?

4. When Barrow meets Sebastian Cuauhtemoc Hashi, “the Man of the Sun,” and begins to learn about the Hashi dynasty, he has many concerns: the Man’s request, his display of power, and the family’s wealth. The city’s businesses, government, and police force also have their hesitations about the Hashi family and its bloodline. Why is Barrow concerned about the Hashis’ interest in the murder victim and their grand role in the case? Are Barrow’s suspicions justified?

5. The Man says the following to Barrow: “Symbolism, you see, detective. It has consequences. It gives a nudge to the world. It makes things happen” (page 31). What symbols are present throughout the work?

6. Why are Drummond and Barrow friends? Are Drummond and Barrow friends?

7. At one point in the novel, Drummond says to Barrow: “It’s all a racket, Joe, everywhere you look, and the only way not to be a sucker is, believe none of it. Free your mind. Free—your—mind” (page 49). What does this say about Drummond’s character, and does Barrow follow this advice? How does Drummond’s cynicism reflect the world in this novel? Is he right?

8. The themes and pacing of this narrative are heavily influenced by the noir genre: undercover conspiracies, jazz, detective twists, and many more. What elements of noir do you see in this work? How does the story play with genre conventions and subvert them?

9. Who is Peggy Iti/Sister Peggy? What does she do? Compare her with the other women in the novel. How does she shake up societal norms and push back against the patriarchal structures that Barrow and the others are familiar with?

10. Describe Barrow’s encounter with Couma Hashi at the Catawba Room. What does she mean when she tells Barrow that she envies him? How does this hint at Couma Hashi’s character and motives throughout the novel?

11. Barrow wears many masks throughout this story: that of a jazz pianist, a detective, a person of uncertain race who walks between the multiple power structures in Cahokia. How does his life as a former full-time artist influence his role as a detective? How does his mixed inheritance influence how takouma, taklousa, and takata people view him?

12. How does the story tease at Drummond and Barrow’s end? What clues are placed throughout the story to reach this conclusion?

13. Discuss the world-building in this novel. What made this setting unique for you? Did you believe in it as a possible course for American history?

14. Who is “Professor Kroeber’s daughter,” and why do you think Cahokia Jazz is dedicated to her? How many other walk-on appearances by real historical figures can you spot in the different parts of the book?

15. The year 1922 is a century ago, far off in time, and the book is not even set in the 1922 of our own American history. Still, what similarities might you notice between the world of the book and the world of the present day?

16. Why do you think the book is called Cahokia Jazz? How does the eclectic musical art form of jazz help tell the tale?

17. After reading the book, check out the notes and acknowledgements. What are some of the most interesting takeaways from the author’s research and notes?

Enhance Your Book Club

1.Read Francis Spofford’s novel Golden Hill, an alternate history of eighteenth-century New York. What similarities exist between the two novels, and how are they different?

2.Explore St. Louis, Missouri, and the area where Cahokia would have been. What are some aspects of St. Louis that influenced the city of Cahokia?

About The Author

© Antonio Olmos

Francis Spufford began as the author of four highly praised books of nonfiction. His first book, I May Be Some Time, won the Writers’ Guild Award for Best Nonfiction Book of 1996, the Banff Mountain Book Prize, and a Somerset Maugham Award. It was followed by The Child That Books BuiltBackroom Boys, and most recently, Unapologetic. But with Red Plenty in 2012 he switched to the novel. Golden Hill won multiple literary prizes on both sides of the Atlantic; Light Perpetual was longlisted for the Booker Prize. In England he is a Fellow of both the Royal Society of Literature and the Royal Historical Society. He teaches writing at Goldsmiths College, University of London.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Scribner (February 6, 2024)
  • Length: 464 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781668025475

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Raves and Reviews

“Dazzling . . . an intricate, suspenseful and moving story that rises from the mists of America’s prehistory and morphs into an alternate version of America’s story. . . . [Spufford] keeps his engine running with action and intrigue, romance and suspense, and his sense of place is spellbinding . . . Cahokia Jazz is an audacious work of the imagination by an author powerfully steeped in mythmaking.” —The Los Angeles Times

“Atmospheric . . . Spufford, one of our most powerful writers of wayward historical fiction, sets his book—a hard-boiled crime story—in an America that’s recognizable yet disquietingly not. . . . In the compelling character of Barrow—a mostly decent man trying to make sense of a fallen ‘what if’ world—many of us will recognize our own held-breath bafflement, caught, as we are, on the darkling plain of our own barely believable times.” —Maureen Corrigan, The Washington Post

“A smoky, brooding noir set in the 1920s, but not an entirely recognizable 1920s . . . Cahokia Jazz combines the intricate plot and burly action of an old-fashioned hardboiled detective novel with Spufford’s dreamy, lustrous prose, summoning an irresistible city lost to time and chance.” —Laura Milller, Slate

"Cahokia Jazz is a love letter—not just to an America that might have been, but to a national mythology that’s very much alive in the world as it is.” —Sam Sacks, Wall Street Journal

"In this stylishly drawn mystery novel, the tropes of noir—among them a hardboiled detective with an artist’s soul, a powerful woman with a terrible secret, and a journalist chasing the story of a lifetime—appear in an alternative Jazz Age." —New Yorker

“Magical . . . a gripping rollercoaster, which fulfills all the demand of the noir form to which it pays homage and, like all the best alt-history, throws a fascinating light onto ‘real’ history." —Mark Haddon, author of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

“Energetic and hugely enjoyable.” —The Guardian, Best Fiction of 2023

“A marvellous deep-layered tale of treachery and trickery.” —Independent

“Arresting . . . a gorgeously rich and multilayered story, packed with gunfire, music and superstition. . . . Cahokia Jazz is enormous fun, and the closest contemporary novel like it is Colson Whitehead’s magnificent The Underground Railroad. . . . Barrow is a terrific action hero.” —The Spectator

“Told in prose as intoxicating as a swig of bathtub gin, this 1920s gumshoe novel takes place in the fictional city of Cahokia where indigenous people are major players in the tenuous peace that rules the city. That is, until a body appears butchered atop a skyscraper, arranged in a way that appears to be a symbolic message. When an outcast detective and his partner are put on the case, wheels start turning in gasp-inducing twists through the very last page.”—Good Housekeeping, Most Anticipated Books of 2024

“A richly entertaining take on the crime story, and a country that might’ve been.”—Kirkus (starred review)

"[A] thrilling leap into alternative history . . . a murder mystery that doesn’t let up . . . Like the city and world it depicts, this is a complicated book that offers many layers of pleasure. . . . Above all, there’s the joy that comes from seeing a profusion of love and care poured into a fully original piece of work." —Financial Times

“Gutsy and atmospheric . . . [a] generous slice of noir.” —Mail on Sunday

“A rich and fluently imagined alternate history . . . vivid and varied . . . Spufford’s skill at keeping you reading, sentence after sentence, is for me up there with writers like David Mitchell.” —Locus Magazine

"Sure to be one of the most distinctly imagined texts of the year, in any genre.” —Crime Reads

"Francis Spufford is a literary sorcerer with one of the great imaginations of our time. When a new book lands, I drop everything and start reading. Cahokia Jazz takes us to an America that wasn't... a wilder, richer, altogether more enchanting America. Bullets and beatings provide the percussion to Spufford's hothouse jazz noir, while hope and heartbreak do a dizzying, drunken foxtrot together. I can't remember the last time suspense and spiritual longing were so tightly braided together in a single novel. A masterpiece.” —Joe Hill

“Stylish and ambitious … [Spufford’s] most crowd-pleasing novel yet.” —The Times

“A taut, unguessable whuddunit, painted in ultrablack noir. . . . It's got gorgeously described jazz music, a richly realized modern indigenous society, and a spectacular romance. . . . amazing . . . a book that fires on every cylinder.” —Cory Doctorow

"The book is itself Cahokia jazz; the play of possibilities beyond the linear progression of the tune we all already know, that goes to wild places and then winds back, beautifully, heartbreakingly, to echo the notes of where it started." —Jo Baker, bestselling author of Longbourn

Cahokia Jazz is a delight.” —Sunday Telegraph

"Francis Spufford has discovered a new riff on a favorite tune, and in exploring it has created something wholly unique. Cahokia Jazz is extraordinary." —Mick Herron, author of Slow Horses

"A vibrant thriller set in an alternative history . . . ambitious and consequential. Spufford’s prose is energetic and rhythmic, yet his theme—namely racial politics in the US today—couldn’t be weightier.” —New Statesman

“This richly imagined and densely plotted story refreshes the crime genre and acts as a fun house mirror reflection of contemporary attitudes toward race—all set to a thumping jazz age soundtrack. Standing alongside Orson Scott Card’s Alvin Maker series and Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, this is a challenging evocation of an America that never was.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“Cahokia Jazz is a novel about finding one’s place in the world. It is haunting, wholly memorable, and will leave you with an ache.” —Times Literary Supplement

“One of the signal achievements of this exceptional novel is the generosity and rigour with which it conjures up Cahokia. Spufford’s creation absolutely feels like a place you could visit, or could have visited, if you happened to be travelling westward across the United States in the year of modernism, 1922. . . . As a piece of narrative entertainment, Cahokia Jazz is more or less unimprovable.” —Irish Times

“Gritty. . . . Spufford has written an astounding homage to noir mysteries. A poignant drama-filled novel that his fans and readers of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian will thoroughly enjoy.” —Library Journal

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