Sid and Chip have grown up together on the wrong side of the tracks in Baltimore, discovering the world of jazz at a young age. 1939 finds the two black Americans in Berlin, playing illegally in bars and dives, their six piece band including Paul, a Jew, and Hiero, a mischling (a half black German). They know they should leave, but they’re unwilling to abandon their paperless band mates. Then Delilah arrives to entice them to Paris to cut a record with Louie Armstrong. Sid falls head over heels for the seductive singer, but she only seems to have eyes for Hiero, a virtuoso trumpet player that some think is as good as Armstrong. After a fatal scuffle with some 'boots' (the Nazi authorities), they know it’s time to head to the border. Then Paul is snatched from the street by the Gestapo and another band mate quits, setting in train their flight. They arrive in Paris the day after war is declared and settle into the phoney war. What they need is another set of papers to get Hiero out of France ahead of the Germans arriving, but then he is seemingly betrayed, ending up in a concentration camp. Fifty years later, a festival recognizing Hiero’s genius has been organized and Sid and Chip are the special guests.
I was hooked on Half Blood Blues from the first paragraph. The book has all the ingredients I like in a novel - a strong story, well penned characters, a good sense of place and atmosphere, lovely prose, and a sensitive embedding in historical context. This is a book that is very much about Sid and his relationship with his friends; the war setting provides a backdrop and the situation of black people in Berlin and Paris forms an important context, but it frames the story rather than being the story (some reviews of the book do, in my view, unfairly critique the story on these grounds, suggesting that those interested in finding out more about black people in Germany look at other non-fiction books). The characterization and the social relations between the principals - the love, jealousy and tension - is the standout quality of the book. At the heart of the story are the themes of friendship, betrayal, guilt and forgiveness and these are skillfully woven through each other, providing the threads that tie the two time periods together. The prose is rich and colourful, and a real joy to read. One of my books of the year so far.