For the past sixty or so years, rock and roll music has been an integral part of a lot of cultures. Whether or not you like rock and roll, that unique fusion of blues, jazz and modern rhythms has won many millions of fans around the world. Rock is such a varied genre too that there are many listening options. I could go on and on about some of the different groups that have made musical history in the rock world, but this isn’t a musical blog, it’s a crime fiction blog. So let’s take a look at the way rock and roll has found its way into crime and mystery fiction.
In the last two decades or so of Agatha Christie’s life, rock and roll infused itself into the culture. Although Christie’s novels aren’t heavily focused on rock music, there are mentions of it here and there. For instance in Hallowe’en Party, detective novelist Ariadne Oliver is visiting a friend Judith Butler in the village of Woodleigh Common. They’re helping to prepare for a village Hallowe’en party one afternoon when one of the local girls Joyce Reynolds begins to boast that she saw a murder once. Nobody believes her and most of the people there try to hush her up. But Joyce insists that she’s telling the truth. That evening at the party, someone drowns Joyce in a bucket of water being used for apple-bobbing. Mrs. Oliver asks Hercule Poirot to investigate and he travels to Woodleigh Common to look into the matter. It turns out that the murder of Joyce Reynolds is related to a murder and a disappearance from several years earlier. In one of the party games, the girls are given mirrors in which they’re supposed to see the faces of their future husbands. With a little makeup and wizardry, two local boys provide the ‘photos’ that are given to the girls in this game. Here’s what one of the guests says during that event:
‘‘Do look, do look. Don’t you think he’s rather wonderful? He’s like Eddie Presweight, the pop singer. Don’t you think so?’
Mrs. Oliver did think he looked like one of the faces she daily deplored having to see in her morning paper. The beard, she thought, had been an afterthought of genius.’
This snippet also possibly reveals Agatha Christie’s view of popular music…
Perhaps Mrs. Oliver isn’t much of a one for rock and roll music, but Ian Rankin’s John Rebus is a fan. There are many mentions of rock and roll in the Rebus novels; I’m just going to mention one. In Let it Bleed (which Rolling Stones fans will know is the title of one of the band’s releases), Rebus and Frank Lauderdale are chasing a pair of suspects across the Forth Road Bridge. When the suspects suddenly change direction, they go over the bridge into the water, and Rebus and Lauderdale are both injured. From his hospital bed, Rebus looks into the kidnapping case that prompted the chase to begin with. At the same time he’s investigating the suicide of Hugh ‘Shug’ McAnally, a former convict who picked a very specific place and ‘audience’ for his death. That leads Rebus to a corrupt development plan and in a vintage ‘Ian Rankin way’ back to the deaths of the men who went over the bridge. Here’s what Rebus thinks about the Rolling Stones:
‘After a drink, he liked to listen to The Rolling Stones. Women, relationships, and colleagues had come and gone, but the Stones had always been there…The guitar riff, one of easily half a dozen in Keith’s tireless repertoire, kicked the album off. I don’t have much, Rebus thought, but I have this.’
Half a century after they started making music, millions of people still feel that way about the Stones.
Jill Edmondson’s Toronto PI Sasha Jackson is a former rock singer. Although she’s no longer in the business full-time, she stays in touch with her former band mates and she knows the Toronto rock and roll scene. In Dead Light District for instance, she is hired to investigate the disappearance of Mary Carmen Santamaria, a prostitute who worked at Candace Curtis’ exclusive bordello. That case leads Jackson to the uglier side of Toronto’s sex trade and a case of human trafficking. In a sub-plot of this novel, Jackson gets a very enticing offer. Band mate and former lover Mick Houghton tells her that their band is planning a reunion gig and he’d like her to be a part of it. Jackson’s not sure she wants to agree though. On the one hand, she loved the creativity and energy of being a part of a band; it was intoxicating. On the other, she’s well aware that she and Mick are much better as friends than they were as lovers. She doesn’t want to put herself into the position of being attracted to him all over again. Still,
‘The thought of performing was appealing…It’s the kind of gig where everyone’s just there for a good time and no one takes anything too seriously. The prospect of jamming with Mick and the boys was also enticing.’
Jackson’s past as a rock singer adds a lot of interest to her character.
R.J. McDonnell’s PI Jason Duffy is a former rock musician who knows the San Diego music scene very well. So in Rock & Roll Homicide, he’s the one Chelsea Tucker hires. Her husband Terry was the lead singer for popular band Doberman Stub until he was murdered one day during rehearsal. The police suspect Chelsea, mostly because she is due to inherit US$5 million from an insurance policy taken out in her name. She says she is innocent though, and she doesn’t think the police will be fair to her. Duffy agrees to take the case and begins to look into it. He and his assistant Joyce Jeannine Joshlin make use of Duffy’s contacts in the business and his knowledge of contracts and the ‘business end’ of music to find out who the murderer is. It’s not long before they discover that some very nasty people have some important things to hide.
Rock and roll music is woven through a lot of other crime novels too. For instance, in Angela Savage’s The Half Child, Bangkok PI Jayne Keeney travels to Pattaya to investigate the death of Maryanne Delbeck. The police account is that she committed suicide by throwing herself from the roof of the hotel where she was living, but her father is not convinced. So he’s hired Keeney to find out the truth. Throughout this novel, as Keeney and her new business partner Rajiv Patel investigate, there are all sorts of mentions of rock music. In this scene for instance, Keeney is following up a lead:
‘She walked along the footpath sussing out the options, when a howling electric guitar called to her from amidst the pedestrian slow rock and R&B. Jimi Hendrix. He beckoned from a bar called B-52…’
Oh, and rock music plays an important role in another very important scene in this novel…
Martin Edwards’ series featuring Liverpool attorney Harry Devlin isn’t heavily focused on rock music but it’s woven through subtly. For instance all of the Devlin novels are titled with the names of rock songs. All the Lonely People, Eve of Destruction, Yesterday’s Papers and Waterloo Sunset are just a few examples.
I know I’ve only played a few notes here; there are a lot of crime novels and series that feature rock and roll. Maybe Neil Young’s right; rock and roll can never die. Hey, hey, my, my…
*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of an Eric Clapton song (and a line from the chorus).