If you’re kind enough to read this blog even semi-regularly, then you already know that music’s been featured more than once here. Whatever your musical taste is, there’s probably a band, orchestra or other group that plays that music and gives concerts. Just by the nature of travel, rehearsals and so on, members of musical groups develop intense relationships with each other, and when you add that to the realities of money, ‘groupies’ and so on, it makes sense that musical groups would feature in crime fiction. And they do. I’ve only space here to mention a few, but hopefully that will give you an idea of what I mean.
In Cyril Hare’s When The Wind Blows (AKA The Wind Blows Death), we meet the members of the Markshire Orchestral Society. Former attorney and amateur sleuth Francis Pettigrew has just become honorary treasurer of the society, so he is present when the group plans the Markshire Orchestra’s upcoming season. For the first concert, orchestra creator and conductor Clayton Evans suggests a guest: renowned violinist Lucy Carless. Not everyone is overly excited about the prospect but plans go ahead and she agrees to join the orchestra for that concert. But tragedy strikes when she is strangled with a silk stocking during the event. Inspector Trimble begins to investigate, and soon enough finds that there is any number of suspects. For one thing, Carless’ husband and accompanist Lawrence Sefton was at the performance and had the opportunity to kill his wife. So did all of the other members of the orchestra, though, and it’s not as clear-cut a case as it might seem. Trimble and Pettigrew look into the victim’s past and the relationships among the orchestra members to find out who killed her.
Normally, I tend to be a purist when it comes to crime fiction authors and their characters. But there are some authors who’ve written about other authors’ characters quite successfully. One of them is Robert Goldsborough, who was authorised by Rex Stout’s estate to write about Stout’s famous characters Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin. Goldsborough’s Murder in E Minor is one example of these novels. In that story, we meet Milan Stevens, well-known conductor of the New York Symphony. He’s been receiving death threats and his niece Maria Radovich fears for his safety. So she visits Nero Wolfe to ask him to find out who’s been threatening her uncle. Archie Goodwin thinks that Wolfe will refuse to take the case, since he’s retired. But Goodwin is wrong. It turns out that Wolfe and Stevens are friends from a long time ago, and Wolfe wants to find out whether his friend is really in danger. But before Wolfe and Goodwin can really begin to investigate, Stevens has been stabbed. The most likely suspect is Maria’s boyfriend Gerald Milner. He had quarreled with the victim the day before the murder and was actually at the scene of the crime. But there are other suspects too, including the orchestra’s managing director and its conductor. So Wolfe and Goodwin have several possibilities to sift through when Maria asks them to clear her boyfriend’s name.
There’s an entirely different sort of take on musical groups and bands in Jesse Sublett’s Rock Critic Murders. It’s the 1980’s, and Austin-based blues bassist Martin Fender (yes, I love that name!) gets word that his former band True Love is reuniting. He agrees to be a part of the reunion, but before the group gets a chance for success, lead guitarist KC is murdered. It turns out that he was killed over a missing kilo of cocaine and it’s not long before two sleazy music critics are also murdered. Fender is drawn into the case when it looks as though whoever killed the first victims is now after him.
A band called Tactile Tattoo plays a central role in R.J. McDonnell’s Rock and Roll Rip-Off. Studio keyboardist Max Varner is hired to join the band to create their first CD at Sterling Studios. All goes well and the CD is made. Then, Varner’s valuable collection of rock and roll memorabilia is stolen. He hires San Diego PI Jason Duffy to find out what happened to the collection but in the process, Duffy is nearly killed by someone who very much doesn’t want him to find out the truth. That incident leads to another frightening experience for Duffy and now it’s clear that some very ruthless people want their hands on this collection. Suspicion falls on the band, members but it’s not quite as simple as that, as Duffy discovers.
And then there’s Peter Lovesey’s The Tooth Tattoo, in which Mel Ferran gets an offer that seems too good to be true. He’s a violist who is invited to join Staccati, an elite string quartet, after their violist goes missing. Before he knows it, Farran is an accepted member of the group and living a lifestyle he’s wanted for a long time. The group is a little mysterious, but Farran believes he’s made the right choice. Then Bath CID chief Peter Diamond makes a connection between Staccati and an unknown young woman whose body is found in a canal. When that death is tied in with the death of another young woman in Vienna, it’s clear that something more than music is going on with Staccati.
Of course, not all bands really get themselves mixed up in murder. One of the fictional bands I find appealing is The Back Porch Blues Band, whom we meet in Riley Adams’ (AKA Elizabeth Spann Craig) Memphis Barbecue series. The band is mainly composed of Big Ben, Buddy and Morty, three retired bluesmen who decide to revive the band in Delicious and Suspicious, the first in the series. Big Ben, Buddy and Morty are regulars at Aunt Pat’s Barbecue, one of Memphis’ popular restaurants. When restaurant critic Rebecca Adiran is poisoned only a few hours after eating at Aunt Pat’s, word begins to spread that the food there is tainted. The three men want to help the restaurant’s owner Lulu Taylor get through this bad stretch without losing too many customers, so they revive the Back Porch Blues Band to draw a crowd. The guys appear in later novels too, always adding their wit and terrific blues sound.
And that’s the thing about bands and groups. People are drawn to them and band members never really seem to lose interest in the music – well, not permanently. I’m thinking, for instance, of Jill Edmondson’s Toronto-based PI Sasha Jackson, a former rock singer who still sometimes does gigs with band she used to front. But those intense relationships and experiences can also lead to a lot of suspense and tension. And murder.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s The Entertainer.