Showing posts with label music mysteries. Show all posts
Showing posts with label music mysteries. Show all posts

Sunday, June 29, 2014

1963: A Sad Song Singing - Thomas B. Dewey

Folk singers and private eyes. Not exactly a combination you'd expect to turn up in a crime fiction novel. What's so criminal about the 1960s coffeehouse scene and long haired guitar strumming entertainers singing ancient songs of doomed love? The closest you get to danger is if someone decides to sing a song with an strong anti-government theme or a pacifist's paean to the end of the Viet Nam war. But Thomas Dewy manages to tell a story of a missing folk singer, his grief stricken girlfriend, and the mysterious contents of a suitcase she's been entrusted with, and come up with a fast moving, action-packed tale that is basically a pursuit thriller.

A Sad Song Singing (1963) is fairly straightforward. Cresentia Fanio seeks out the help of Mac, Dewey's world weary private eye based in Chicago, and asks him to locate her missing boyfriend, singer Richie Darden. She claims she's been followed, has managed to lose the men on her tail, and needs Mac's help to hide the suitcase and find Richie soon. He's skeptical about the whole thing, especially about the suitcase Richie has given Cress to watch over. She refuses to open it as she promised Richie she wouldn't. When some thugs burst into his office and Mac manages to beat them off and escape with Cress and her suitcase his mind is pretty much made up. He'll do his best to find Richie and get to the bottom of the mystery of why the thugs want the suitcase so badly.

The detective novel elements are at a minimum here. It's the story of Cress and her complete immersion in the folk singing scene that makes for a fascinating read. Dewey creates a variety of coffeehouse locations from swank carpeted establishments that serve meals and alcohol to the dingiest dive serving only regular coffee and apologies for the broken espresso machine from a leotard wearing waitress while college boys play chess and turtleneck attired beatniks strum their guitars on a wobbly wooden stage. The atmosphere feels oddly old-fashioned, almost cliche and yet wholly authentic. Dewey even dreams up a few folk songs with haunting lyrics. You can practically hear the music wafting off the pages. Mac can't help but succumb to the lure of the music and discovers that Cress herself has an unmined talent for singing just waiting to be unleashed on a welcome audience.

At each new singing gig Mac gathers up bits of vital information about the missing singer and begins to wonder if Darden may have been involved in a robbery. When he gets a chance to handle the mysterious suitcase and feels it to be suspiciously lightweight he begins to suspect the worst and fears that Cress is being exploited as a decoy while Darden makes his escape.

Mac is not your typical private eye. Sure he's great in a fistfight and though he carries a gun with a legal license he's reluctant to pull the trigger. This case that forces him on a road trip through the folk singing world with a teenage girl also puts him in the role of surrogate father. We see a tender side to him as he comes to care for her not only as his client but as a lost girl too much in love with a fantasy. At one point he seems utterly lost himself. No longer able to reach her with his compassionate talk, yet knowing he needs to convince her that Darden's disappearance may have very dangerous consequences for he dissolves into frustrated silence. His lament is summed up in a simple painful sentence: "If only I could sing, I thought."

I read this book at part of Rich Westwood's challenge mentioned earlier this month on his blog Past Offences to read a mystery published in 1963. It also fulfills one more book in my Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge, Silver Age edition.

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Reading Challenge update: Silver Bingo card, space V4 - "Book with a professional detective"

Friday, December 20, 2013

FFB: Death on the High C's - Robert Barnard

Gaylene Ffrench isn't bothered by typecasting. In the role of Maddalena in the Northern Opera Company of Manchester's latest production of Rigoletto she is relishing playing a vulgar prostitute. But if you ask her fellow cast members they'd tell you she's not acting at all.

The more we get to know Gaylene the more we see that she is loud, brash, rude and licentious. Between her promiscuous come-ons to every male member of the cast and her frequent insults hurled at the more talented female singers Gaylene has managed to make enemies of the entire company. They dislike Gaylene so intensely that when two attempts are made on her life they are not taken seriously. Especially when, in her constant grasping at any type of publicity, she runs to the newspapers rather than the police. However, when she dies bizarrely via an electrified doorknob outside her dressing room the opera company must reassess those previous accidents and start looking for a murderer among themselves.

Death on the High C's (1977) was Robert Barnard's third detective novel. He has a field day satirizing the many vain and egotistical performers so often lampooned in novels about opera singers, but he is also highly knowledgeable about the world of opera. As is the police detective Superintendent Nichols who at first plays dumb about the music in order to catch the cast and crew off guard. If there is anything to criticize it is an assumption on Barnard's part that his readers are as expert in the world of opera as he is. As much as I dislike "info dumping" a little more background on some of the plots of the operas and composers would have been appreciated by a rookie opera fan like myself. I resorted to Google to help fill in the gaps that Barnard and Nichols and the Northern Opera Company omitted.

The writing is at times arch and ostentatious with a wry humor that on occasion made me laugh out loud. Every now and then the satirical touches are tempered with moments of quiet drama as in the scene when we learn that the singer playing Rigoletto is taking care of a severely disabled young girl in his home, a fact he'd prefer to keep very private. For the most part though this early Barnard mystery novel is less somber than some of his later books. His wit and clever plotting reminded me more of Christianna Brand than Agatha Christie who he greatly admired.

Today is a salute to the recently departed Robert Barnard. For more about his wonderful detective novels and crime fiction please visit Patti Abbott's blog where you will find links to the other contributions for Fridays Forgotten Books.

Friday, July 19, 2013

FFB: Blues for the Prince - Bart Spicer

Harold Morton Prince, popular jazz composer and musician is shot dead in his home at the start of Blues for the Prince (1950). His collaborator, a song arranger named "Stuff" Magee, is seen fleeing the crime scene and is expertly knocked down by a cop who uses his billy club as a boomerang. Now Magee is hospitalized with a coma. Found on Magee is a briefcase with documents proving that the Prince was a fraud. His one time collaborator claims he wrote all of the Prince's music. He wanted the Prince to admit it and split his fortune or Magee would go public and ruin Prince's reputation and essentially end his career.

Carney Wilde is hired by Larry Owens, ex-fiance of the Prince's daughter. He wants closure and he wants the truth. Owens hopes learning the truth might help repair his relationship with Martha Prince. Wilde takes the case because he's a jazz enthusiast himself and is a great admirer of the Prince's music. He thinks the whole scheme of Magee's is nothing more than lies and the work of a desperate blackmailer. He wants to prove the Prince was a true musician and that his music is his own. But soon he learns his jazz idol is not the folk hero that newspapers and the fans have made him out to be.

From Martha he learns that her father was "a cheap loud man with bad taste...primitive in his music just as he was in life." From Lt. Grodnik he uncovers the Prince's a "foot long" police record of drunk and disorderly charges. The Prince was also addicted to drugs and at this late stage in his career apparently needed the junk to calm him down so he could perform civilly in front of an audience. Carney is none too happy to have taken up the case. The digging up of dirt gets messier and uglier the more questions he asks.

Eventually the case turns to the hunt for Arabella Joslin (aka Bella Joe), a singer in cahoots with Stuff Magee to defraud the Prince out of royalties and discredit him as an original songwriter. When we finally meet the singer she turns out to be a hardass of a pistol packin' Mama. She hates cops and loathes private eyes. Carney barely escapes with his life when she pulls out her double barrelled Derringer.

Spicer knows his jazz music and the story is as much an exploration of the jazz scene as it is another early version of the corrupt family crime dramas like those of Ross Macdonald. Notable too is Spicer's handling of race issues that are rather advanced for a book published in 1950. Carney Wilde manages to clear the Prince's name, repair a bit of the musician's scarred reputation, and heal a very wounded family when he finally discovers how and why the blues man died. Though purists may object to one of the last twists in the finale the novel still has Spicer's trademark realism, honesty in emotion, and an unexpected poignancy in the story's resolution.

Previously on PSB is this review of The Dark Light, Bart Spicer's debut mystery novel and the first of seven books featuring Carney Wilde.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Crime Fiction on a EuroPass: Amsterdam & Rotterdam

The train is pulling into Centraal Station in Amsterdam. Already I can smell the fragrant aroma of local baked goods and local baked people. Everyone knows Amsterdam is home to all those brown cafes where coffee and pot are sold in equal quantities, right? Well, maybe total sales tip the scale in favor of the magical weed. People tend to think of two things when Amsterdam is mentioned - pot and sex. But do you ever think of jazz music? Maybe you will now.

Evan Horne is a jazz piano player who happens to have an unfortunate habit of getting involved in music related crimes. He was created by Bill Moody, writer and jazz musician himself, and appeared in seven books so far. In his fourth outing, Looking for Chet Baker, Horne finds himself in the European playground for pleasure seekers of all types which also happens to be the city in which Baker died.

Seems a university professor acquaintance, Ace Buffington, is researching the mysterious death of Baker who fell out of a window at the Hotel Prins Hendrik back in 1988. He hopes Horne will meet him in Amsterdam and join in his adventure. When Horne arrives at the hotel Buffington is nowhere to be found. He seems to have vanished without a trace. He did, however, leave behind a portfolio with all his research on Baker stuffed behind a radiator in his hotel room. Horne is faced with a mystery again. What happened to Ace? And is his disappearance related to his work on Chet Baker and Baker's violent and seemingly accidental death?

Chet Baker memorial plaque outside Hotel Prins Hendrik
What I most enjoyed about this book was all the jazz music history and the parts dealing with music and the musician's mindset. You learn that Amsterdam has been the chosen city of exile for several ex-pat musicians in addition to Baker. You also get insight into the creative life of a jazz musician and what makes him tick. The writing about Horne's improv sessions perfectly encapsulates this kind of thinking. And one of the characters -- Fletcher Paige, an American sax player living in Amsterdam -- has some insightful comments about Horne's skills as a piano player (" looked like you were going to climb right in that piano.") reveal him to be the perfect personality type to sit back, reflect and observe, and take everything in. Interestingly, these are also the qualities of a good detective. No surprise that Horne is compelled to solve the mystery of Ace and Chet Baker.

The city comes alive in a different way than most books set in Amsterdam. Jazz music colors every scene. There's even a side trip to Rotterdam. But the presence of Chet Baker's ghost takes over. There are sections devoted to the trumpeter's final days interspersed within the mystery narrative. At one point Horne succumbs to the temptation of the magical weed, buys a particularly strong strain at one of the cafes and after smoking it, has a similarly strong hallucination. He imagines he sees Chet climbing up the drainpipe outside of the Hotel Prins Hendrik and Horne chases after him, but under the influence of the drug he doesn't make it up the pipe very far.

Bimhuis - Amsterdam music venue known for jazz
I liked the jazz music portions more than the crime story plot. I may check out others in the series, but a warning to anyone unfamiliar with this series. Do not start with this one. The previous book Bird Lives! will be completely ruined for you if you do. Evan Horne talks about that book in which he faces a mad serial killer and the killer's identity is revealed along with much of the story in that book. Also, Chapter 2 consists of a flashback of sorts where he seeks out a therapist who specializes in post traumatic stress disorder and he talks even more about he experiences in Bird Lives! as well as two other books in the series.

Evan Horne Jazz Music Mysteries
Solo Hand (1994)
Death of a Tenor Man (1995)
Sound of the Trumpet (1997)
Bird Lives! (1999)
Looking for Chet Baker (2002)
Shades of Blue (2008)
Fade to Blue (2011)