“Song of the Chimney Sweep,” by Tamatha Cain

Reviewed by Donna Meredith

The rich musical history of Jacksonville, Florida, provides an appealing backdrop for Tamatha Cain’s debut novel Song of the Chimney Sweep (Orange Blossom Publishing, August 2022). R&B, jazz, and rock stars with Jacksonville roots making appearances include the Allman Brothers, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Ray Charles, Ma Rainey, Blind Blake, and James Weldon and J. Rosamund Johnson. Romance between fictional characters Betty and Dominicus in 1969, and Melody and Dorian in 2019, plays an important role in character and plot development. Yet this novel is far more than history, far more than romance— Song of the Chimney Sweep presents an intriguing cold-case mystery to be solved. With so much crossover appeal, many different types of readers are going to love this story.

The mystery kicks off when Melody and Dorian read an intriguing post on their true crime podcast’s website that questions the disappearance of Betty Langdon twenty years earlier. Was she murdered? Kidnapped? Commit suicide? Or simply run away from a dull life? As Melody interviews people who knew Betty for the popular podcast, secrets begin to emerge. Why did Betty’s husband refuse to let investigators search the property behind the motel he owned? And the podcasters learn another woman disappeared under similar circumstances—were the cases related? One of the biggest secrets of all slips out—before her marriage, Betty met fast-rising R&B singer Dominicus Owens and they began a dangerous interracial romance. Was Betty the quiet housewife and competent business owner she seemed to be—or was she far more complex?

Another mystery emerges around Betty’s husband—the chimney sweep referenced in the title. An urban legend claimed a treasure was hidden inside a Jacksonville chimney. Did the treasure exist, or was the rumor used simply to generate more business for Betty’s husband?

Cain mixes in fragments of Betty’s backstory with Melody and Dorian’s podcast transcripts, along with adventure and romantic tension as Melody and Dorian track down every lead. The innovative format is entertaining and intriguing, yet does result in some repetition of material.

The descriptions of Jacksonville are a real treat, often delivered with eloquent rhythms as seen in this sentence: “We pass big and small houses both, the grand and the humble, the old and the newer, well-kept beside dilapidated.” Of particular interest are the passages detailing the Black history of the city and the way the freeway plowed right through the middle of a prosperous Black neighborhood destroying it. Black historian Zeke claims the area used to be called The Harlem of the South and rails against the injustice of its destruction:

I’m saying, what I’m asking, is how was that neighborhood ‘declining’ and razing it was justified, when the other one just like it must be saved at all costs? It was because it was a prosperous community of African Americans, and some people could not abide that in their town.

Here, Cain highlights an issue that occurred across the country as interstate highways harmed minority neighborhoods while designating similar white structures as historic landmarks that must be preserved. Zeke is such a fine storyteller that Melody feels as if she closed her eyes, the ghosts of old LaVilla would come to life: “It was bustling here. Black business, hotels, theatres, shops. Houses of ill-repute, and bars, too, with music everywhere.” James Weldon and J. Rosamund Johnson were born right there in LaVilla. The first published account of the performance of blues singing, April 16, 1910, was right there at the Globe Theatre. Zeke shares more than just history with Melody and Dorian. He also imparts his philosophy that “the spark of a creative soul is a piece of God’s light right here inside us. It’s not a black spark, it’s not a white spark, it’s not any one color. It’s light. All colors.” Music, he hopes, can be a bridge spanning the divide between races.

If you like music, you’ll want to grab a copy of this novel and ride down memory lane with some fine musicians—and you’ll learn some fascinating facts about Jacksonville, which Cain expertly develops as a vibrant character in its own right.

Tamatha Cain is a former musician and bandleader. She graduated from the University of North Florida with a concentration in Writing for the Entertainment Industry, and her work has appeared in national and international publications. Winner of the 2020 Royal Palm Literary Award for unpublished literary mystery and first place in The Experience Poetry Competition, she also writes reviews for this journal. She is a wife and mother of three and lives in a hundred-year-old bungalow in North Florida, in close proximity to the historic locations found in Song of the Chimney Sweep.

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