Thursday, February 15, 2007

Mystery music

What kind of music does your favorite fictional detective listen to? What sounds course through the pages of your favorite crime fiction?

Sherlock Holmes liked to play the violin, even if Watson did not always enjoy listening. Thanks to technology and economics, today's protagonists are spared the effort of learning and practicing an instrument. They can listen to records, tapes and CDs, and I suppose younger fictional crime-solvers are hooking themselves up to their MP3 players even as we speak because their creator wants to set a mood or to reveal something about a character that only Tom Waits or Tupac or Nirvana can say.

Uriah at Crime Scraps notes that Ake Edwardson's Erik Winter likes jazz and asks: "will it be my kind of jazz, Armstrong, Basie, Hawkins, Spanier and Goodman or more modern stuff ?" I'm sure a toot of Ornette Coleman would not put Uriah off a novel he was otherwise enjoying, but his post did get me thinking about how an author uses music to build a fictional world.

Jean-Claude Izzo's Fabio Montale listens to music as hot, as rich, as spicy and as varied as his hometown of Marseilles. That works for me in part because I know some of the music Montale likes, I'm intrigued by the music I don't know, and in large part because his tastes are distinctive. And it's not just newer writers. Jonathan Latimer made sparing and effective use of radio music in his William Crane novels in the late 1930s.

Then there's Ian Rankin, whose detective, John Rebus, listens to the Rolling Stones, sometimes in books that share titles with Stones albums: Let it Bleed, Black and Blue, Beggars Banquet. I don't begrudge Rebus his love of the Stones, but their popularity is so widespread that a taste for their music is not unusual enough to serve as a distinctive character marker. Maybe that's supposed to be part of Rebus' everyman charm. It won't work for me until Rankin can tell me why Rebus' reaction to the Stones is different enough from yours or mine to hold my interest.

The same goes for Ken Bruen's protagonists. Rock and roll is so mainstream these days that it's tough for an author to use it as a mark of distinctiveness, despair or much of anything, really. It's as banal as using brand names to set the tone of a place and time.

N.B. I've had to amend my comment on Ken Bruen. He actually does some nice things with music in his books, and I've mentioned them in comments to this post. I'm still no big fan of the epigraphs from songs and crime novels that he uses as chapter headings. If I recall correctly, Bust, Bruen's hilarious collaboration with Jason Starr, even uses a quotation from another Starr novel as a chapter heading. That doesn't seem quite right, somehow. Of course, it doesn't have anything directly to do with music, either.

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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18 Comments:

Blogger Peter said...

I should probably amend my comment on Ken Bruen. In The Killing of the Tinkers, the protagonist, Jack Taylor, recalls the scene at a concert he attended -- the singer/bassist's feral behavior on stage and his death after the show. Bruen does not describe the music, but he does capture the danger and edge that some like to think still lurks in rock and roll.

February 15, 2007  
Blogger sauron said...

An important italian crime novelist, Carlo Lucarelli (http://jazzalnero.blogspot.com/2007/01/carlo-lucarelli.html), has publisched a book called Almost Blue. This is a very good book and his name is a song of Chet Baker. The song is recurrent during book development.
ciao
s

February 15, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

Thanks. I like Chet Baker, and I always play his songs on the jukebox at Philadelphia's press club. I've also read good things about Carlo Lucarelli, so I'll add Almost Blue to my list.

February 15, 2007  
Anonymous KarenC said...

Mark Billingham's central character Tom Thorne is a fan of, amongst other things, country music.

Very disconcerting for those that are decidedly not fans of country music but huge fans of Billingham's books.

February 15, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

Ha! I'm tempted to look for one of the books simply to see what Billingham does with a kind of music that I, too, don't like. How does music figure in the novels? And which novels would you recommend?

I notice that country music crops up from time to time in Diamond Dove -- and I love the dove!

February 16, 2007  
Anonymous KarenC said...

Billingham uses the music references to illustrate Thorne's moods / give him an interest outside just work.

It's done pretty subtly though, but you do find yourself madly googling band names and finding yourself rather startled :)

In terms of where to start you really can't go past the first book - Sleepyhead which haunts me to this day even though I read it quite a few years ago.

February 16, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

Damn me, I think I'll make another Ken Bruen amendment. He has a funny and unexpected use of country music in Vixen, part of the Brant and Roberts series:

"Porter Nash knew he was dying. Gays like him liked Dolly Parton marginally better than Barbra Streisand, and her version of `I Don't Know Much' was reeling in his head. He could hear `I don't know much but I know I'm dying," which made it a torch song of mega echoes."

That's nice, I think. Bruen tells us something worth knowing about the character and about the music's appeal. Maybe the use of music works here because the character invokes it at a critical moment, and not just because he has no companion for the evening or has to cook his own dinner. I still could do without all Bruen's epigrams, though.

February 16, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

Karen:

That's a good recommendation, that Billingham's books got you searching. I did that with the Dolly Parton song that I mentioned in the comment you'll see right above this one. I'm also reassured that you say Billingham is subtle in his use of music as a mood indicator. That makes me feel better about the possibility of looking for a book that includes country music.

That Billingham and, I presume, Thorne, are British adds interest. I know that country music's earliest antecendents are in Britain, mainly Scotland, but it's still primarily an American form of music. Hmm, a few years ago in Brazil, though, I bought a compilation CD called Sertanejo, the Brazilian Portuguese word for country. If you ever want to hear Shania Twain songs sung in Portuguese, I'm the man to see.

February 16, 2007  
Blogger Uriah Robinson said...

The song Almost Blue features all the way through the superb Lucarelli book. Also Detective Grazia Negro wears the perfume "Summertime" which she bought because of the song in an advertisement.
I am playing the Miles Davis version at the moment, but the weather outside is certainly not summertime.

February 16, 2007  
Blogger Uriah Robinson said...

There was a TV series screened in the UK from about 1985 to 1988 that was jazz orientated.
Trevor Chaplin (James Bolam) was a jazz-loving woodwork teacher at a comprehensive school.

Along with fellow teacher Jill Swinburne (Barbara Flynn), he becomes involved in a series of mysterious events.

In The Beiderbecke Affair, Trevor and Jill start off trying to track down some jazz records and end up helping to bring a corrupt policeman to justice.

There were two other series The Beiderbecke Tapes and The Beiderbecke something I can't remember. But I think that series boosted Bix Beiderbecke sales in the UK and my interest in the 1920's.

February 16, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

I knew you liked Almost Blue, Uriah, so I'm not surprised you're weighing in. And Chet Baker's voice is so clear and pure that it seems weirdly suitable for a crime story.

As for "Summertime," it sounds as if Lucarelli just might be a master of atmospheric jazz. I'll be able to hear those sounds as I read.

February 16, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

Uriah:

I don't know Beiderbecke's music, so that series might be a good introduction, if I can find it -- unless I liked the music so much that it proved a distraction from the action. And a jazz-loving woodwork teacher would make a fine addition to that roster of amateur sleuths with interesting professions that I've discussed from time to time.

You mentioned an episode in which Trevor and Jill start by trying to track down some jazz records. Did all the plots include jazz directly? That could be a nice way of ensuring that jazz figures as something more than mere atmospherics -- at the risk of straining credulity from time to time, much as one wonders why people seem to get murdered wherever Jessica Fletcher shows up.

February 16, 2007  
Blogger Uriah Robinson said...

Peter here is some info on the Beiderbecke Trilogy:

The entire comedy drama series from Alan Plater.

In 'The Beiderbecke Affair' (1984), woodwork teacher and jazz buff Trevor Chaplin (James Bolam) has always fantasized that a beautiful blonde will enter his life and simultaneously provide him with rare recordings of his hero Bix Beiderbecke. Unlikely as it seems, this is just what happens one evening when Trevor is at home in his flat. It is an encounter which will ultimately involve him and his colleague, independent political campaigner Jill Swinburne (Barbara Flynn), in exploding lawnmowers, political corruption and the strange world of 'black economists' Big Al (Terence Rigby) and Little Norm (Danny Schiller).

In 'The Beiderbecke Tapes' (1987) Trevor and Jill find themselves plunged into another jazz-related mystery when the former purchases some Bix Beiderbecke tapes from a pub barman. Jill is intrigued when one of the tapes contains a conversation about the planned dumping of nuclear waste in the Yorkshire Dales, her curiosity being roused still further by the discovery that the barman who sold Trevor the tapes has now gone missing... The intrepid duo soon find themselves up to their necks in trouble once more as their investigation takes them from the relative safety of Yorkshire to the mean streets of Amsterdam and Edinburgh.

In the final part of the trilogy,
'The Beiderbecke Connection' (1988), Trevor and Jill are still living together, and they now have a baby boy to look after as well. Their household is increased still further when old friend Big Al asks them to take in a refugee as a favour; Trevor is reluctant until he discovers that his new guest is, like him, an ardent jazz fan. However, this visitor is only the first of many who will involve Trevor and Jill in yet more intrigue and deception.

There was obviously a tenuous jazz connection in all three series. I can only remember the first of these series, but I was rather busy in 1987 and 1988 relocating to Devon.

February 17, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

That mix of fantasy and old popular music reminds me of The Singing Detective (which had good, atmospheric camera work, some touching moments, and a good performance by Michael Gambon, though I did not find it the transcendent, life-changing experience that one would have expected after reading that critics had to say).

The Beiderbecke series sounds as if it could be enjoyable and even plausible, and I’d bet that the scriptwriter had fun, especially with the second episode. It must be nice to see a protagonist so devoted to the pursuit of something as pleasant as music.

By the way, I was watching some contemporary cop show this week, and the soundtrack was rap. It was actually pretty good, more varied that the frequent thud, thud, thud, but all I could think was: What a distraction. What a strained effort by producers to show gritty urban hipness. This may buttress my argument against using contemporary popular music to accompany stories. Its very newness is distracting.

February 17, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Gabo said...

I'm sorry for Uriah, but it's not so much Armstrong, Basie etc. Ake Edwardson puts on his player (I imagine it to be a *LP* not a CD player) though not really modern either. Bebop of the Forties, early Fifties, Miles Davis, Dizzie Gillespie, Charlie Parker. And sometimes a later, more *free* Charlie Mingus, if I remember correctly. But there are funny moments when his UK colleague (MacDonald his name?) tries to talk him into Rock.

To contribute to your list: when having my Andrew Vachss period (about eight to ten years ago) of course I had no idea who was Judy Henske as she hadn't been recording for about twenty years. But then I got her 1999 'Loose in the World' and I thought, wow, that's really something special, in between all genres. And I found her 60ies records, 'Judy Henske' and 'High Flying Bird', and they are incredible, weird and outsized in any way. Well, with Burke it's mainly Henske, but Vachss included her on his Safe House blues anthology, between Otis Spann and Muddy Waters ...

I've only read one of James Sallis' Lew Griffin novels ('Moth'), but learning about his bio recently I wonder if he doesn't use his stunning musical knowledge for his crime fiction, too?

February 18, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

Gabo, you will see from one of Uriah's comments above that he also listens to Miles Davis, so maybe he and Erik Winter can find music they both like.

I think I'll read some Ake Edwardson as soon as I finish what I'm reading now. I like the comic potential of Winter's colleague trying to talk him into listening to rock -- as in a medieval disputation. Can you recommend one novel that has a particularly good argument over music?

I don't know Judy Henske, and as for Burke, well, I imagine he'd listen to raw, harsh music. I don't think Burke and his crew would listen to, say, Judy Garland.

I've never read Sallis, either. It might be time for me to start.

February 18, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oops, I mixed up the author and his protagonist (Edwardson vs. Winter)! Maybe I should stop reading crime novels for a while ...

Oh no, Judy Henske is neither raw nor harsh, but not Judy Garland-like either, of course. Very special and very good *and* very touching, too, f.i. 'Dark Angel' - try to find the 1999 CD somewhere and just listen to it, it's worth a try.
Gabo.

February 18, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

Well, I can certainly imagine Burke listening to something called "Dark Angel." He's about the darkest of all angels in crime fiction.

February 18, 2007  

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