Thursday, July 17, 2008

Coda: A note on musical references in crime stories

Enthusiastic response to last week's post about Crime songs has had me thinking about music, crime fiction and music in crime fiction.

One of my complaints about the last is that a given song or musician, usually of the rock and roll variety, too often serves as nothing more than a brand name or a label. The song or the performers are simply too popular to serve as a meaningful indicator of a character's uniqueness.

Håkan Nesser uses music in his recently published Mind's Eye, where he has his protagonist, Van Veeteren, slip into his car and put on some Francisco Tárrega. The reference to the great classical guitarist is, like many musical references in crime novels, a label. Nesser does not make music an important part of Van Veeteren's makeup. But at least it's a distinctive label. Not many fictional detectives favor classical guitar.

The music references that really caught my eye recently, though, were in Mehmet Murat Somer's The Prophet Murders. In the scene in question, the manager of a transvestite nightclub insists that the club's record spinner account for his choice of music:

"`What's this music you're playing?' I demanded.

"`Adiemus. New Age. It's a new group. Great, isn't it?'

"To add insult to injury, he was poking fun at me. New Age is one of the forms of music I simply don't comprehend. Paul Mauriat, Franck Pourcel, Francis Lai and even Fausto Papetti have been playing this kind of music for years. The only difference is that they perform with an orchestra, not synthesizers and the piping of a flute. Nowadays, intellectuals have elevated this sort of music into an art form. Why the double standard? What have the others been doing wrong all these years? A succession of critics has slammed them. All right, I don't think much of their work either, but I don't see the difference, do you?"
Now, that's a good string of musical references. The scene is funny. It tells us something about the protagonist's personality. It packs an amusing, self-satirical punch line. The mention of instruments may help you imagine the music. If you know the performers, you may smile (or wince) to memories of soaring, sappy, minor-key string passages. Somer's passage is a hell of a lot more than just a label, in other words. Most important, the scene could work just as well for a reader who has never heard of the performers in question.

And now readers, what are your favorite musical references in crime novels or stories? What makes the references work?

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

Technorati tags:

Labels: , , , ,

36 Comments:

Blogger Linkmeister said...

Hmm. I can't think of any music that isn't used as an atmospheric device. "The bar was throbbing with John Entwistle's bass line when Jones walked in."

Two points for knowing the band. ;)

July 17, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Throbbing with John Entwistle's bass line? Sounds like "My Generation" to me, or maybe "Boris the Spider," if the writer set the scene in an especially cool bar.

I don't know how I'd feel if I came across that line in a story. I suppose my reaction would depend on the context. If the story was set in the 1960s, say, and the atmosphere was primarily of noise, chaos, and middle-class kids doing drugs, "The bar was throbbing with John Entwistle's bass line when Jones walked in" might work as a snappy summing up of what had gone before. Or if the writer had spent a paragraph extolling Roger Daltrey, Keith Moon and Pete Townsend and then had Jones walk in on John Entwistle, the effect might be humorous.

If, on the other hand, the line had to carry the burden of description, I'd the writer was lazy and cheap.

It's too easy to use music to set the scene. Perhaps authors tempted to do so might want to imagine a hypothetical readers who has never heard of the song or performer in question.

July 17, 2008  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Excellent post Peter. Your knowledge of Turkish Mystery novels would make a brilliant specialized subject on the old BBC Mastermind show.

I seem to remember that in A Study in Scarlet Holmes listens to Mendelssohn to help him think and I'm pretty sure Mendelssohn crops up in some either stories as well.

July 17, 2008  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

"imagine a hypothetical readers who has never heard of the song or performer in question."

That would take some conscious imagining. I'd probably cut the reference; if I had to explain who Bunny Berigan or Bix Beiderbeck were then I'd just have added an extra paragraph.

I was gonna say Freebo for the bass, but unless you read liner notes for early Bonnie Raitt albums...

Two points plus extra credit for Boris. ;)

July 17, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

"My knowledge of Turkish mystery novels"? You gobshite, I think I've now read two of them.

I seem vaguely to recall a particular piece that Holmes used to play on the violin. I don't remember if it was Mendelssohn, though.

Ken Bruen may be a bit free with the rock and roll references, but he is responsible for one of the better ones. It's in the Jack Taylor novel that opens with Taylor's recollection of having worked security at a Thin Lizzy concert right before Phil Lynott died. The parallel to Jack Taylor's doomed police career is right there, so the reference works.

July 17, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

You wouldn't have to explain who Bunny Berigan was, but you'd have to give the reader something to grasp, some way to use his or her brain and figure out why you're mentioning this Bunny Berigan guy.

"I cued up some jazz -- Bunny Berigan's gently swinging, wistful trumpet. I laughed and shook my head. `I know what you mean, Bunny," I told the stereo. `I can't get started either.'"

Then you could explain all about Berigan's promise, his alcoholism and his early death in an end note.

July 17, 2008  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

That would work. You could do a similar thing with Glenn Miller, too.

My mother gave me a copy of "I Can't Get Started" on a long-playing 78. Trouble was, it was the first cut on the record and there was a huge chip out of the edge. Made for some very tentative stylus placement.

July 17, 2008  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

I stand corrected. How about your knowledge of north Dublin slang then? Gobshite indeed.

July 17, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Yeah, I guess you really couldn't get the record started.

July 17, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Gee, I'd been led to believe gobshite was a term of affection. Am I wrong?

In fact, thanks to Gerard Brennan, I knew the word was more common the South than in Northern Irelend. But I love the word so much, and I had been aching for the opportunity to use it.

July 17, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Linkmeister, I wouldn't presume to tell any writer how to write fiction until I'd written some, but I'd say the same principle should apply with music references as with anything else: Every word should have a reason for being there. With music references, a writer ought to be especially wary because such references can come too easily. In fact, I'll second-guess myself: If I read a Bunny Berigan reference like the one I wrote, I might suspect the writer of using cheap atmosphere and superficial knowledge. Why? Because it's too easy to use Berigan's best-known song.

And now you can see why, when it comes to writing fiction, I've never been able to get started.

July 17, 2008  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Yeah gobshite's fine. its better than what they'd call you in, say, Glasgow. Gerry'll have to give you some good old Belfast slang though.

David Peace's Red Riding Quartet is filled with period songs mostly of the cheesy variety. A nice counterpoint to the horrible things happening all the time.

July 17, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I haven't read those books, but from what little I've read of David Peace, I can well believe he would be sensitive the effect sounds can have when rendered on the page.

And what would they call a gobshite in Glasgow? I was once in a tour group with a Glaswegian couple. I shall always remember the explosive zest with which the male half exclaimed about our hotel in Split that "The breakfast was crr-AAAAP!"

July 17, 2008  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

When I was in college a Glaswegian dorm-mate memorably said to me in the presence of mum and aunt "So this is your wee mather? Well, at least she's no a complete f**king c*nt like mine."

July 17, 2008  
Blogger John McFetridge said...

Ha ha, Glasgow....

In The Big O, Declan Burke makes some very nice use of Springsteen references, especially with Ray, "Wondering how Bruce always got himself hooked up on these women called Mary. 'Thunder Road,' 'The River,' 'Mary's Place'... Christ, the man was obsessed."

Tells us a lot about Ray, too.

And I remember listening to dozens of Springsteen bootlegs (back in the days you had to buy them in white LP sleeves at Dutchy's Record Cave on Crescent) for the times he changed her name to Wendy.

Ian Rankin, of course well known for his blues-rock references also mentioned the Wishbone Ash song, "Throw Down the Sword," in a recent book which I guess was ironic as Rebus is the classic cop that never gives up.

July 17, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Perhaps "f**cking c*nt" has undertones of affection and filial respect in Scots English unknown in other varieties of the language. Or perhaps your dormmate was just a gobshite.

July 17, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

John, I remember that line from The Big O, one of many acutely funny observations from that wonderful book. Mary ... Wendy ... From the mother of God to the consort of Peter Pan. You think maybe Springsteen had escapism issues early in his career?

Rebus' musical habits kick-started my complaints about music and crime fiction. I never got the feeling that Rankin's musical references were telling us anything except that Ian Rankin liked the Rolling Stones. That Wishbone Ash reference sounds clever, so maybe I ought to give the man another chance.

July 17, 2008  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Peter

You're right the C word can be a term of endearment in Glasgow cf James Kelman or Irvine Welsh but it that case I feel it wasnt.

I always thought Bruce's best album was Nebraska. A series of interlinked noirish crime stories and none of them more than three chords. What more do you want.

July 17, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Did your dormmate at least have a twinkle of mischief in his eye when he referred to his mother in that startling fashion? And did your own wee mather flush with pride at being called "no a complete f**king c*nt"?

Yeah, a lot of Springsteen's early stuff was overwrought, in the manner of high school poetry. By Nebraska, he was writing songs that were haunting in their matter as well as their manner.

All this chat about music has me thinking about picking up my guitar again and maybe even going out and buying some new harmonicas.

July 17, 2008  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

Grins. I remember it took forever to get my fingertips callused enough to play without pain, and that was on a Hofner six-string classical guitar. Playing the six-string Rick was a whole 'nother level.

July 18, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Yep, I'd get a nice, macho feeling from finger pain and calluses. I used to have a twelve-string, and the parallel lines on the fingertips were cool!

July 18, 2008  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

How come no hotshot fingerprint analyst ever concludes from the data that the perp was a guitarist based on those embedded lines?

We need a guitarist to write mysteries.

July 18, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Or conclude that the perp or the victim was a novice guitarist. A veteran player's callused hands would be impervious to those lines. A grizzled player has lines on his face, not on his fingers.

Did Kinky Friedman play guitar?

July 18, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

"I never got the feeling that Rankin's musical references were telling us anything except that Ian Rankin liked the Rolling Stones."

John, since I wrote that about Rankin and the Stones, I should mention another crime writer who works his own feelings about Jagger, Richard and Co. into a novel and does a lot more at the same time. The author is Jo Nesbø. The book is The Devil's Star:

"Hi, Øystein. Harry here. Have you got anyone in the car?"

"Just Mick and Keith."

"What?"

"The world's greatest band.

"Øystein."

"Yep?"

"The Stones are not the world's greatest band. Not even the world's second greatest band. What they are is the world's most overrated band. And it wasn't Keith or Mick who wrote `Wild Horses.' It was Gram Parsons."

"That's lies and you know it. I'm ringing off – "

"Hello? Øystein?"

"Say something nice to me. Quickly."

"`Under My Thumb' is not a bad tune. And `Exile on Main Street' has its moments."

"Fine. What do you want?"

"I need help."

July 18, 2008  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Can of worms here, but give me any random Stones tune over any random Beatles tune any day. Or better yet any pre 1975 Zep.

July 18, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

All these rivalries ... Some rock critic once reminisced about an album from his youth called, I think, The Beatles vs. The Four Seasons, with each side containing songs from one of the bands. "Who were these long-haired Englishmen, to be challenging the Four Seasons?" the critic recalled thinking. "The Seasons, man!"

And I heard the excellent Alejandro Escovedo tell a concert audience that when he was young, and someone would ask "Beatles or Stones?" he'd reply "Velvet Underground."

July 18, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Do you think that when Mick Jagger and Paul McCartney got together, they'd ask one another "Chandler or Hammett?", "Churchill or Roosevelt?", "Dry or sweet?", "Red or white?", "Wine or beer?", "Berlioz or Brahms?"

July 18, 2008  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

Sir Paul's pretty accessible; I heard him interviewed by Radio Canada yesterday about his upcoming show in Quebec on the occasion of its 400th birthday. Apparently some few folks object to a lousy Brit being invited to celebrate with them. As Paul pointed out, "You won." (This was on CBC's "As It Happens," which we get on my public radio station. You can probably find it at AIH.ca if you're interested enough.)

I'd love to hear somebody ask him that.

July 18, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Yeah, one gets used to small-mindedness and petty cultural insecurity like that. A mix of French and English was always one of the gritty glories of the Quebecois rock music scene. In any case, Sir Paul's remark was curious but witty, since the British won the Battle of Quebec (Plains of Abraham), but the Francophones won in the fullness of time.

July 18, 2008  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Chandler, Churchill, dry, red, beer, Berlioz.

Yeah I agree it can be pretty silly, its just taste, although if we all admitted that what would happen to all those fun arguments with your 13 year old nephew about why Linkin Park suck.

Escovedo's good a point too, its all about The Velvets!

July 18, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I haven’t listened to much rock and roll since I was in high school and college, and even then I liked music from before my time. One advantage this confers is that when I do hear a current song, my mind leaps back across decades to the song’s antecedents. It didn’t take much of this for me to realize that just about every song from the 1980s on has its rock and roll roots in Bob Dylan, the Velvet Underground or the Beatles. Popular music is so fragmented these days that one doesn’t hear much about the old-style rivalries anymore except, perhaps, when rappers shoot each other.

Re nephews: My 6-year-old (and musically talented) nephew is still too young for me to tell him that those Green Day songs he likes are true shite.

July 18, 2008  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

One of the sad things about getting your music online is that kids today wont find their older siblings record collection lying around. I remember when my big brother went off to college, sneaking into his room and listening to his vinyl collection which basically was British album rock from 1967 - 1981. What an era! Floyd, Zep, Bowie through to the Clash and Pistols.

Kids today wont have that visceral experience of touching albums and album covers since their songs exist only in some disembodied place in cyberspace.

And I agree about Green Day.

July 18, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I am the oldest of three, and if my sister and brother sneaked into my room after I went off to college, boy, will I be pissed.

I have yet to join the online music parade, but I wonder what the dissipation of music into bits of electronic information does to the concept of albums, not to mention concept albums. Sure, artists still record multi-song chunks of music in what may still anachronistically be called “albums,” but how much longer will that go on? The flip side (and how much longer will that anachronistic expression last?) is that artists can now record compositions limited in length only by the bandwidth of the computers that download them. But how artistically and commercially viable is that?

There are further practical consequences to the shrinking and disappearance of recorded-music packaging. A colleague of mine who listens to lots of classical music recalls the days when an opera libretto could fit easily on a relatively few album-size pages. With pages shrunk to CD size, and with the necessity of squeezing in text in four languages, someone wanting to follow the libretto while listening to the opera must constantly be turning pages. And when packaging disappears altogether? Perhaps it’s no accident that the CD format seems to be hanging in a bit more tenaciously in classical recordings.

July 18, 2008  
Blogger Lauren said...

I spend much of my life with classical music, and I'm scratching my head to think of a situation where I've ever been asked to choose between Brahms and Berlioz. (I like them both, as it happens.) Brahms and Wagner, though - Brahms every time.

*Takes Vienna circa 1890 hat off*

Anyway, one of the reasons I'm not into online music so much is because most of what I listen to is classical, and while there are certainly good downloads out there, CDs do seem to work better. Particularly if you're the sort of person who wants to compare the Solti version with the Furtwaengler with the Keilberth with the Barenboim...hang on, I've just picked Wagner examples...since it's not a matter of just finding a particular piece, but finding a particular recording or ten. And there are quite a few CDs out there now, both archival and fairly new, which are cheap enough to compete with what are pricier pay downloads.

I don't own any LPs of operas, but I can imagine librettos pose a particular problem for designers in smaller and smaller formats, since you really need multiple languages. I do tend to use seperately published editions when I want to look at the text, because text size becomes an issue.

Back on topic, I think Morse and Wallander probably share the crown for effective listeners to classical music, (Wallander's deppresed abandonment of his collection is very striking, and I love Morse's somewhat ecclectic views, particularly on Schubert in the last book) while I think Ake Edwardson has given his detective Erik Winter both a varied taste for music and a friendly foil with a preference for jazz.

But as a general rule, I'm not overly impressed with classical music as refered to in crime novels, since it tends to occur in a way I don't really recognise (I'm a player as well.) Someone who loves Wagner will not generally have found the composer in isolation (if they have that's quite a political character trait, usually), but too often seems to be stuck in an unlikely musical vaccuum. (Not even a mention of Bruckner? or Beethoven? Only Ring excerpts on the way to an arrest?) And there are hordes of lovers of Mozart and Bach out there, but a distinct lack of fans of less popular composers who would probably equate to the more indie artists often cited by pop-savvy detectives. I eagerly await the patriotic Danish detective who's a fan of Carl Nielsen, or the gone-to-seed Viennese Kommissar who cries whenever they hear the Berg Violin Concerto!

Actually, music's a great source of stories in the 'couldn't make it up category.' Starting with Mahler's wife, for example (as Tom Lehrer did so memorably.) Donna Leon tackles this a bit in Death at La Fenice.

Final comment: one of the more memorable aspects of Stieg Larsson's book(s) was the fact that they were populated by people with very little interest in music. It was a nice antidote to random Beatles/Jagger references.

Sorry for the length!

July 21, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Lauren, I'm at a public computer, so I'll keep this brief, then reply at greater length later. For now, I'll say that I share your eagerness for a Nielsen-loving detective. That great Dane has been one of my big discoveries in the past year, and I took a CD of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra playing his Second and Fourth Symphonies on my trip to the beach a few weeks back.

With respect to his Second, I most often feel a temperamental affinity with the first movement, followed closely by the fourth.

July 21, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

No need to apologize for the length. This way I get to respond in pieces and build my traffic up

I picked Brahms-Berlioz for the opposition between classicist and arch-Romantic -- and probably because of the alliteration. I also understand from a colleague who is up on his iPods that MP3 players are geared toward organizing music in the pop-sing-size units rather than the larger scale of concertos, symphonies and operas.

I shall also have to reread some Henning Mankell. I've read about five of the Wallander books, but none since I started listening to classical music in the past few years. Already I am sad for his abandonment of his collection. And Morse may be my teacher on Schubert, who came to my attention when I attended a highly melodic, wonderfully enjoyable performance of one of his piano trios last year. It will be interesting, too, see how musical preferences become a part of the characters' relationship in Ake Edwardson, one of whose novels is on my to-read pile.

Perhaps classical music does not work well in novels because it's not natural to the authors' worlds.One of the reasons I enjoyed the exchange about the Rolling Stones in The Devil's Star (quoted above) is that it seems so natural, a snippet from the everyday conversation of two friends who talk and argue about rock and roll all the time. The reference, in other words, is no clumsy attempt at an objective correlative of the protagonist's state of mind. And it may be no coincidence that the author, Jo Nesbø, is a rock musician, and may have been part of many such good-natured exchanges himself.

It would interesting to read a similarly relaxed exchange about classical music, something along the lines of a funny conversation I once had at the so-called press club in Philadelphia with a member of the first violin section of the Philadelphia Orchestra.

Wagner is another one whose life could not have been made up, from what I understand

My final comment is about your final comment: Your assessment sums up in few words my misgivings about music in fiction, and it makes me want to read Larsson.

July 21, 2008  

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home