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