Monday, November 17, 2008

Enter ... the Visitor

I'm feeling like a benevolent superhero these days, one whose power consists in his ability to take on the interests of anyone he visits.

Thus a recent stay with a comics-loving friend introduced me to some fine crime-fiction titles: Scalped, The Punisher and, just yesterday, that stunning, multi-layered, symphonic, operatic piece of storytelling known as Watchmen, written by Alan Moore and drawn by Dave Gibbons.

The comic maven's partner (and my co-host) loves Ian Rankin's writing and is fascinated by music in crime fiction, a frequent and well-commented-upon topic of discussion here at Detectives Beyond Borders, so our talk naturally turned to those subjects. This led to some thoughts and questions that I'll pass on to you:

Music has been a part of crime fiction at least since Sherlock Holmes started scratching at his violin and of crime movies at least since the 1950s (think moody saxophones and lonely skylines). I have an idea, though, that it was baby-boomer authors who really popularized music references in crime fiction, often to rock and roll, in a big way. Why is this the case? And was Ian Rankin any kind of an innovator in his use of music in general and rock and roll in particular, or might it just seem that way because his Rebus novels are so popular?

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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26 Comments:

Blogger Philip said...

Peter, I think it's a little misleading to say music has been part of crime fiction since Holmes started playing his violin. He did that in 1887. Rankin's Rebus and Robinson's Banks first appeared in 1987, Harvey's Resnick in 1989, and over the preceding century I don't think music was any more a part of crime fiction than it was of any other sort. (I'm think only of novels here, not film, for the latter almost invariably have music of some sort, and that's a somewhat different issue.) That is to say, over those decades, music only came up now and again in one way or another. Cyril Hare wrote a novel that revolved around the instrumentation of a Mozart symphony. Rendell set one at a rock concert, Barnard in an opera house. Morse was a great lover of music, Wagner in particular. The three writers I mentioned above -- Rankin, Harvey and Robinson -- and perhaps Rankin in particular, though all three of their detectives appeared within a two-year period, variously started something very different. First, their musical musings became a regular occurrence and expected. And, because all three were hugely successful, writers following them got the idea this was part of the recipe for success, so we now have an epidemic of this and it has nigh become a convention. Second, the rock and jazz references in Rankin and Harvey tend often to be decidedly recondite, so the musings upon them are unlikely, I much suspect, to resonate with that many readers. One can contrast that with Morse -- we know he loves Wagner, yes, but if a page were spent upon his mulling the differing interpretations of Die Walkure by Solti and Furtwangler, I suspect readers might think something a bit off in the context. This wee matter of the stucture and coherence of the novel seems to go by the board when the music is jazz or rock, and this is the more important because I am at a loss to know what these now-conventional musical interludes really add to our knowledge of the character, and they are certainly hardly germane to the story. By way of contrast with Rankin and Harvey, the musical tastes of Robinson/Banks are meaningless because they are so relentlessly middle-brow -- the tastes of someone who listens a bit of classical, a bit of jazz, and knows nothing much about either, but every damn time Banks puts in a tape or switches on the radio we get a report on what he's listening to. I have a notion that I've recently come across an example of what happens when this sort of thing takes on a life of its own in the case of Harvey's novels. I am quite happy to know that Resnick likes jazz, good for him, and I think we've got that established. But in a later Resnick novel and in one of his Elder series, Harvey quite weirdly decided to have his detectives lisen to classical music -- although they don't like it. This gave Harvey/Resnick a chance to go on a rant about how classical composers (he was thinking of Ravel and a few others) shouldn't try to use jazz rhythms because they don't know how. And we had Harvey/Elder delivering the opinion that "...all classical music sounds like Haydn." Oh really? Is there any point to this nonsense, other than self-indulgence, encouraged by some readers and reviewers? I think not. Music can have a place in fiction, crime or other, but it has to done well, it has to be properly integrated, it has to add readers' -- and not just a few readers -- understanding of character or feeling for place or be, on occasion, actually germane to the story line. It is very difficult to pull off, music being per se ineffable. Evocation of music is a vulnerable spot in Proust. It can be done well, but it rarely is and, in crime fiction, it is becoming a convention going on cliche, no different from the bottle in the desk drawer or the Scotland Yard detective who's really the younger son of a duke.

November 17, 2008  
Blogger Dana King said...

Philip has many excellent points. I was a musician in a previous life, and I think most of the musical references in crime fiction are used to provide characterization in much the same way brand names are used. It's a quick shorthand to say Mrs. A wears a Piaget while listening to Debussy in her BMW, and Mr. B wears a Timex while listening to The Pogues in his Honda.

November 17, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

"Has been a part of ... since Holmes" was modesty on my part. In fact, I could think of no music in crime fiction for many decades after Conan Doyle, but I did not want to run the risk of making the sweeping statement that music first appeared with Holmes, only to disappear over Reichenbach Falls for a century before reappearing with Ian Rankin. In fact, you have filled in with examples much of what I suspected but could not be sure of since I had not read Harvey or Robinson. I haven't read much Rankin, either, but I'm surprised that you found his musical references recondite. His rock and roll references were among the first to arouse my interest in this subject, and I said at the time that rock and roll makes a dicey character marker because almost everyone listens to it; taste for it is not unusual enough to serve as a distinctive trait.

Music is also a dicey proposition as a scene-setting device. I was annoyed by one recent crime novel that had the detective slipping into his car and popping in a CD of Tarrega. No "Francisco," no description of the music or its effect on the character. And this character had no previous history of liking classical guitar, at least not in the author's books that has been translated into English. Music demands a response from those who hear it. Of course, the trouble then becomes that such a response can detract from the story, as you suggested.

And I very much like your pithy conclusion. Music is indeed the new bottle in the desk drawer or blueblood Scotland yard detective.

November 17, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Dana, I think you're right about music being used as just one more brand name. Trouble is, music demands more response than a brand name and does not always get it in crime stories (or probably in any other fiction, for that matter).

November 17, 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Peter,

If you're getting into crime fiction titles in Comics the first place you need to check out is "100 Bullets" by Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso. It is probably the best modern noir story on the shelves today. It's only rival is Criminal by Ed Brubaker and Sean Philips. Both works are throwbacks to all that is great about pulp and they have everything many of the current books on the shelves are missing.

Later,

Mike Knowles

November 17, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks, Mike. My comics friend gave me a copy of 100 Bullets, so that's on my list.

November 17, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

From my first glance, it seems to have certain affinities with Scalped, at least one of which would be a spoiler if I gave it away here. Also, I suspect that both books may give readers truer pictures of what's going on in some troubled communities than they would get elsewhere.

November 17, 2008  
Blogger Sandra Ruttan said...

Although I can see the basis for arguing that musical taste is used as a means of revealing character, I think that's oversimplifying. However, I'm going to state that I'm speaking in generalities. It may well be true for one author, not true for another, or true for one reference in a book and not true for a different reference in the same book.

I wouldn't completely agree that rock 'n' roll is so widespread in its popularity that rock references don't speak to character. As someone strictly raised on country, I think there's a wide range within rock and there are many people who do not listen to what I would call the rock subgenres. Conventional fluff, or pop, is what often dominates some popular radio stations, video networks and bestseller lists, but would we believe in a Rebus listening to Britney Spears or Hannah Montana? Many of the musical references in the Rebus books speak to culture, as there's a high volume of Scottish bands, and then British bands, followed by American, Canadian, etc. If anyone wants to see a full listing of all the musical references the link is: http://www.homespun.co.nz/exile/index.html

There's another aspect to some of the musical references that I would argue is more crucial, and it's about setting the mood. When I read a book and a musical reference is made, such as the character sitting down and putting on a CD or being suddenly caught by a song that comes on the radio, I think of it like a soundtrack. In my own writing I try to use the references to reflect or amplify what's going on in the scene, and that may be why I presume atmosphere into the musical references of others, but I expect I know something about the style of the music being referred to based off of my understanding of the mood of the character. On a simplistic level, we associate rap with anger. Others think of country as being simplistic. A nod to Shania Twain may make many of us think of mindless pop.

I'm not a huge fan of pop culture references, but I do like characters that listen to music, because music's always been important to me. I think a lot of people learn early - as I did, being raised on country - that music can be a unifier and a divider and what you listen to will be a measuring stick by which some people will judge you. Our musical tastes speak to our age, to our mood, to our upbringing, to our exposure. Some music calms me down, some amplifies my anger, some makes me happy, other songs make me cry. Whether or not I choose to listen to Susan Aglukark's Hina Na Ho or Sarah McLachlan's Angel right now will speak volumes about my state of mind to anyone who knows the songs.

Which is, of course, the risk. One thing I can say as a huge Rankin fan is that I trusted my understanding of the musical references, and have in turn become a Jackie Leven fan and have a growing collection of Blue Nile CDs as well, for which I can thank Ian.

BTW Peter, the Jackie Leven song you liked was Classic Northern Diversions, from Shining Brother Shining Sister, and it's referenced in Naming of the Dead.

November 17, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Yeah, that's the trouble with discussions like these. I wind up speaking in generalities. So here are some specifics:

Jean-Claude Izzo made some of my favorite uses of music in his Marseilles trilogy. They worked because they were unfamiliar and because Izzo's writing already appealed to the senses in so many other ways that music just seemed like a natural part of a larger whole. He also used music in at least one expected way, if I recall correctly, creating suspense by having his protagonist hear music from a room before he sees what's happening inside.

An example I like less is the Tarrega reference that I cited above. That was in the third of Hakan Nesser's novels to be translated into English. I like Nesser, but not that particular music reference.

November 18, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Philip:

John Harvey and Peter Robinson were part of a panel on music and writing at Bouchercon in Baltimore. An author named Roz Southey, whom I had not heard of, was also on the panel. She stood apart from the other panelists in several ways. For one, she's a musicologist, and her field is classical music. "Being a musicologist," she said, "I think music is meant to be listened to."

She said that her stories were built around the role music plays in her character's lives and that she did not tend to address emotional aspects of music that much. This could provide a refreshingly different take on music in crime fiction, I'd say.

November 18, 2008  
Blogger Philip said...

Peter, I remember that reference to Tarrega in Nesser, and what I thought at the time: interesting, it tells me something, but it is likely not going to mean a thing to most readers. And the problem then is that if he included the first name, and somehow worked in a line about classical guitar, it would almost certainly seem contrived and gratuitous, which is the heart of the matter.

Many thanks for mentioning Roz Southey. I've just looked at her website -- she's at the University of Newcastle, specializes in music performance in North-East England in the 18th century, and, indeed, the detective in her crime fiction is an 18th century Newcastle musician. Sounds promising, and I much like what you report her as saying. The panel at Bouchercon reminds me of a BBC programme not long ago in which authors discussed music in fiction, particularly whether music can be evoked in words. What rather floored me about the programme was that there were readings of excerpts intended to evoke specific pieces of music, the object being to see if they were effective, and the producer of the programme apparently thought it would be a good idea to play the music as the passages were read. That, of course, defeated the object of the exercise, but at least indicated the views of the producer on the matter. And perhaps a rather nice example of the much-discussed BBC process of 'dumbing down'.

November 18, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I might be one of those relentlessly middlebrow listeners who know enough to recognize Tarrega's name but too little for the name to evoke anything except a vague feeling of Spanish guitar. Now, if Nesser had had Van Veeteren listen to some records by Sabicas or Paco de Lucia ... In short, I was unable to fit the Tarrega reference in with anything else I knew about the character or the story. The reference may have significance that I missed, but all I learned is that Håkan Nesser probably likes Tarrega.

Peter Robinson said he liked to have odd songs pop up occasionally when Banks' iPod is in random-play mode. That would seem to offer the potential for an occasional good joke.

November 18, 2008  
Anonymous Michael Walters said...

I've never been very convinced by the use of musical references as an indicator of character or even mood. At a purely practical level, unless they're relatively mainstream, they're likely to whistle over the heads of most readers. It may tell us a little about Rebus that he likes the Rolling Stones or about Morse that he likes Wagner, but I'm not sure most readers are going to take much from Rankin's references to Jackie Levin or Dick Gaughin. I tend to assume that the musical references are something of a forgiveable indulgence on the writer's part - I suspect it's not coincidence that most of the writers cited are male and, um, of a certain age (I write as one who is both). This is the same impulse that, in a younger day, led us to share mix-tapes of our favourite songs with our friends (whether or not they were interested...). Nothing much wrong with that - if it gains Jackie Levin another listener, that's fine by me. But I think it can be a distraction - I'm not entirely sure I believe in Rebus's (as opposed to Rankin's) musical taste so I tend to find the suspension of my disbelief stretched just a little thinner at those points in the novels. Incidentally, I don't suppose that Philip is the same Philip I know who combines a enthusiasm for crime fiction with an even greater enthusiasm for Elgar and others? I imagine probably not, since he's not referenced another of that Philip's enthusiasms - the most obvious 'golden age' crime fiction/music combination, Bruce Montgomery/Edmund Crispin.

November 18, 2008  
Blogger Philip said...

Holy Disorders! You are right, Michael, it's surprising I didn't have Crispin closer to mind when I wrote my first comment above, especially as I mentioned his house at Week, near Dartington, in a comment on Crime Scraps just a few days ago. My musings about Elgar and others do show up quite often on Jessica Duchen's Classical Music Blog, though I don't recall writing anything about EE since I indulged in a fulmination about the Bank of England's removal of his portrait from the 20-pound note. Anyway, I'm feeling rather flattered you made the connection, Michael, however it came about.

November 18, 2008  
Anonymous marco said...

Since a careful reading of your posts seems to suggest that your comic-loving friend is Brian Lindemuth-and you say you have developed the power to take on the interests of those you visit - I'll casually remind you that Brian has at least twice spoken very favourably of a novel I in turn have recommended a few times- Generation Loss by Elizabeth Hand.
While the central conceit of the book is photography music plays a very important role also - the protagonist is a "survivor" of the early punk scene - CBGB,Patti Smith,Television,Blank Generation -that music,that aesthetic,that life (and deaths)
and its afterburn shape what she is

Ciao,
Marco

November 18, 2008  
Blogger Brian said...

Marco -- the worst part is that I have two copies of Generation Loss and realy missed an opportunity to pass one over to Peter when he was at the house.

November 18, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Michael, "forgiveable indulgence" shows commendable perspective. I don't think I've ever thrown down a book in disgust over even annoying musical references.

I don't know if this Philip is the one you know, but he seems to know his music, and I believe he is a countryman of Elgar's.

November 18, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Another enigma solved before I set my mind to it. Philip is the Elgar lover. Who's on the 20-pound note now?

November 18, 2008  
Blogger Philip said...

I'm glad you asked that, Peter. They removed Elgar in the 150th anniversary of his birth and replaced him with Adam Smith, which is rather funny, given that there's an inquiry into the nature and causes of the bankruptcy of nations going on right now.

November 18, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Marco, you've solved that mystery. The comic-loving friend is indeed Brian Lindenmuth, which I did not mention only because I wanted to avoid name dropping.

I was around during the time of the early punk scene, though I was in no way part of it. I loved some Sex Pistols and Clash, but from my outside perspective, the scene was a much-hyped flameout that turned into a calculated set of attitudes more than anything else. It might be interesting to read a novel that examines the lives left behind when fashions changed.

November 18, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Philip, I always admired the willingness of European countries, especially Italy and France, to honor artists and scientists on their currency, so it's a pity that Elgar is gone. The choice to replace him does seem unfortunate these days, almost like a Monty Python joke.

November 18, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Brian, you couldn't offer me copies of every book in your house. I'll put Generation Loss on my list. Forgive my ignorance, but is it a crime novel?

November 18, 2008  
Anonymous marco said...

It might be interesting to read a novel that examines the lives left behind when fashions changed.

As you'll see if you read it,Cassandra was the real deal,not a poser...she's "damaged goods".

Forgive my ignorance, but is it a crime novel?

Depends on how you define a crime novel.It is a novel,and there are crimes...I'd say the better definition is probably novel of suspense -shades of thriller,horror and mystery,but with a very different pace and build than that of the prototypical examples of these genres.

November 18, 2008  
Blogger Logan Lamech said...

You don't have to forgive my ignorance if you don't like, but it sounds like a crime novel to me.

Logan Lamech
www.eloquentbooks.com/LingeringPoets.html

November 18, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Logan, you show no ignorance to be forgiven. Reading Marco's definition, I'd agree with you that Generation Loss sounds like a crime novel.

Efforts to define this or that genre or subgenre are frequent on crime-fiction blogs and at conferences. One definition that works for me is that a crime novel is a novel about crime. By that yardstick, Elizabeth Hand's book would seem to fit.

November 18, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

As you'll see if you read it,Cassandra was the real deal,not a poser...she's "damaged goods".

Marco, that possibility is intriguing. We in America are big on proclaiming anf celebrating new cultural eras and epochs, less so on acknowledging that the aftereffects of said eras and epochs are not always pleasant.

November 18, 2008  

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