June 2003

Ah, Sweet Mysteries of Life

Musical Thrillers Make Great Summer Reading

by Paul D. Lehrman

It was around the time when I built my first home studio that I rediscovered the mystery novel. In my living room were a half-dozen MIDI synths, a Macintosh computer (upgraded to 2 Megs of RAM!), some buggy sequencing software and a Sony PCM-F1 digital audio converter. I felt as if I now had everything I always wanted. Now, the world could just leave me alone and I could be creative. And I would never, ever have to leave the house.

Well, my girlfriend at the time would have none of this. She wanted to have picnics in the woods, sit by the ocean, hike through the mountains and all that silly outdoor stuff. I resisted as much as I could, but when she held out the possibility of food and drink, and hinted that there might be some opportunities for romantic interludes, my resistance started to flag. But what was I supposed to do with all that time she wanted to spend just staring at the trees or the water or wherever we found ourselves? "Bring a book," she said. "Like a mystery novel. Something to get your mind off of equipment for a little while."

And so I did. I remembered devouring Sherlock Holmes as a kid, and I found that as a purported adult, I got the same kick out of reading the best of the modern writers, like Robert Parker and Tony Hillerman. Then I discovered a subgenre, which could be called the "musical mystery." There are a lot more of these out there than you might imagine.

The most fun from reading a mystery, as I see it, is not necessarily staying ahead of — or even keeping up with — the plot. It's finding recognizable people and settings in the book and seeing what the author does with them. As fiction writers know, there's actually no such thing as fiction. All of that stuff you think they're making up, they're taking from real life, just changing the names and circumstances to protect both the innocent and the guilty. But if you're smart, you can tell whom they're really writing about.

Which is why I'm going to open this little survey of musical mysteries with one of the funniest — to my mind — books I've ever read: We Interrupt This Broadcast, by Seattle-based writer K.K. Beck, who undoubtedly was following me around when I first started my working life, because everyone in her book seems to be based on someone I knew way back then. In a run-down, stagnant, family-owned AM classical-music radio station, as the evening announcer cues up Ravel's Bolero to assist him in seducing a visiting female fan, he discovers the sales manager's dead body stuffed into a convertible couch. Things go downhill from there.

We find out that the victim was running an escort service out of his office, which is apparently how he bought a BMW, because he certainly wasn't selling any radio spots. The sexy overnight announcer, "Teresa, Queen of the Night" — who tapes her shows ahead of time and hence has never been seen by the rest of the staff — finally makes an appearance and she's not at all what they expected. The brother and sister who inherited the station loathe each other. When they announce that they are finally getting rid of the shelves of ancient LPs ("as well as any 78s, wax cylinders or piano rolls you may have squirreled away over the years," reads the memo) and replacing them with CDs, the afternoon man, in protest, locks himself in the control room and has a psychotic breakdown, live on the air. Before it's over, we also get blackmail, secret mail-order brides, heavily armed white supremacists, another murder and an accidental hero on a skateboard.

Though it was almost 25 years ago, the brief time I spent in classical-music radio came roaring back to life as I read this book. The story is well done, but it's the characters that made me laugh nonstop.

Another thoroughly enjoyable, comparatively gentle tale (there's almost no violence, save the victim collapsing at his music stand) that propelled me into the past is The Tanglewood Murder by Lucille Kallen. Published in 1980, the second in Kallen's C.B. Greenfield Series, the book starts off as Greenfield, a stuffy (but, of course, brilliant), Nero Wolfe-ish, small-town newspaper publisher and his intrepid reporter Maggie Rome, who narrates, are driving to the summer home of the Boston Symphony for a few days' R&R. But they find that strange, threatening things have been happening to various members of the orchestra, and then in front of their eyes, a violinist drops dead mid-rehearsal. Was it a heart attack? Was he poisoned? But how?

The cast includes a standoffish conductor, a jovial Russian cellist, several spurned lovers of various persuasions, an aging hippie orchestra groupie and her seductive daughter, social- (that is, sexual-) climbing music students and a host of others I knew all too well in my conservatory days.

Kallen, who was one of the lead writers on the original Sid Caesar television show (Mel Brooks was another) and was reportedly the inspiration for the Sally Rogers character on the old Dick Van Dyke Show, gets the atmosphere of a summer music festival just right: petty bickering, incestuous liaisons, intense competition and sublime performances. She wrote five Greenfield novels in all, but this one is the most delightful. Sadly, she passed away in 1999.

Linda Barnes creates a totally different atmosphere in Steel Guitar (published: 1991). Heroine Carlotta Carlyle is 6-foot-1, has Bonnie Raitt-like red hair and used to play guitar semi-professionally. Then she became a cop, and now drives a cab and is a part-time P.I. As the book opens, she's working downtown when Dee, a rock superstar, gets into her cab. She tells the cabbie (whom she doesn't recognize) to go to a park in the worst part of the city, where she proceeds to give out $10 bills to drunks, until one of them starts to grab for more and Carlotta has to come to the rescue with a foot-long lead pipe that she carries under the front seat. And then it starts to get really dark. An argument over a bass riff ends up in a murder. Or does it? A long-lost band mate is threatening blackmail over songwriting credits. Or is he? Little is as it seems in Dee's world.

Steel Guitar is a terrific look at the excesses of that era's rock scene (not that they've changed much): drugs, groupies, hangers-on and sycophants, juvenile behavior and screaming fights among bandmembers, the decadent press and, of course, the adoring fans. There are smiling mobsters, sleazy record label execs, overworked doctors and a Jewish mother. Two of my favorite blues artists, Chris Smither and Rory Block, make cameo appearances.

For me, the book has the added resonance of taking place in Boston, much of it on the very block between the Berklee College of Music and Symphony Hall, the place I called home when I first moved here, and where I still go for an occasional concert and the best Thai food in town. Barnes is a former actress and drama teacher who lives not far from where I live now.

Steel Guitar and The Tanglewood Murder are currently out-of-print, but they are easy to find online and at brick-and-mortar used bookstores.

This genre's catalog would not be complete without the collected works of Kinky Friedman, who describes himself as "the oldest living Jew in Texas who doesn't own real estate." A sometime country-music songwriter and performer, sometime writer (he pens a column for Texas Monthly) and full-time friend of radio wacko Don Imus, The Kinkster (as he likes to refer to himself in fiction) was recently cited by People as one of the artists heard on the sound system of Air Force One. Granted, it's an odd, but fitting, fact to hear about someone who describes a certain bodily function generally performed in private as "taking a Nixon."

His 14 (!) mystery novels have been called "peerlessly cosmic paranoid fantasies," which pretty much sums them up. The protagonist is a sometime private eye named, coincidentally enough, Kinky Friedman, but this Kinky lives in Greenwich Village, in a loft underneath a busy lesbian dance studio with a security system based on a rubber puppet's head on a parachute and a reluctant freight elevator. Kinky (the fictional one) used to play music, but now — after years on the road, during which, among other things, he snorted "a passenger train full of Peruvian marching powder" — he spends a lot of time talking to his cat, drinking espresso from a machine that sings operatic arias and "Lara's Theme" from Dr. Zhivago, watching pieces of his ceiling fall down and waiting for his two phones (both connected to the same line) to ring so that he can go play sleuth.

Not surprisingly, all of Friedman's books have plenty of musical themes, but perhaps the one that strikes closest to home is Road Kill, in which our hero joins the venerable Willie Nelson — "the last living folk hero in America" — on a three-bus tour from Texas to Buffalo, N.Y. It seems that the star's personal vehicle — the famed "Honeysuckle Rose" — accidentally ran over a drunk Native American one night in Arizona, and ever since then, Willie's been scared that he's under a curse.

Published in 1997, the book is still in print and easy to find.

One writer who has emerged from within our own ranks is Keith Snyder, whose four books show his pedigree: In all of them, major plot points revolve around music and recording technology.

Snyder is a composer, keyboard player and graphic designer, originally from Los Angeles, who, he says, "falls on the cusp between the boomers and the Gen-Xers, and I think both camps are strange." This is reflected in his protagonist, Jason Keltner, who is also a composer but who has a penchant to seek out and find trouble.

Snyder's first novel, Show Control, was released by a small Colorado publishing company in 1995. Jason does have a day gig inspecting pipes for the water department. By night, he plays and hangs out at clubs. One night, a performance-artist friend meets with an untimely death when a laser she's using to write words on her midriff goes berserk and cuts her in half. The wayward laser rig uses the MIDI Show Control protocol; that's just one of the multiple entendres of the title.

Naturally, Jason goes off to find out who's responsible, and along the way encounters a shadowy but beneficent federal agent, a larcenous evangelical preacher and his "trained boulder" bodyguards, a couple of mobsters and the über-geek-criminal from cyberspace who seems to be behind all of the trouble. There are plenty of double- and triple-crosses, and another of Jason's best friends may have tried to kill him or save his life. There's lots of computer talk: Martin uses Photoshop to help locate one of the bad guys, much of the action takes place as e-mail exchanges on a pre-Internet BBS called "Muse," and the final showdown involves samplers and signal processors as the good guys literally try to flush out the villain.

Snyder's second book was picked up by a respected New York publisher, Walker & Company ("the mystery editor there liked my AOL posts," he says), and he has done two more since then for Walker. Coffin's Got the Dead Guy on the Inside, the second book's title, is the punch line to an ancient musician's joke.

This time, Jason, who's broke, has been hired by his fed buddy (who's moonlighting as a sound designer for a videogame company) to spy on his friend Paul, who has fallen in with a "suspicious crowd." Soon, a dreadlocked multimedia genius — a cross between Macromedia founder Marc Canter and virtual-reality guru Jaron Lanier — drops dead at a party in front of Jason, and somehow Jason feels Paul is connected. There follows a hysterical car chase during which pieces of Jason's ancient Plymouth fly off at various locales all over Los Angeles County, followed by other chases involving large numbers of white Ford Tauruses (or "Tauri") up and down the 101 to Silicon Valley. What's everybody chasing? A computer dongle that contains code powerful enough to…well, you'll have to read it.

The Night Men brings Jason to New York (not coincidentally, as Snyder himself moved there long ago), where he is enlisted to help a gay friend whose music store has been trashed. A vintage Theremin plays a minor role. Jason finally finds a way to make money with his music when a client pays him big bucks for a bunch of random sequencer patterns he generates one night out of boredom. The book ends with an amazing discovery in the store's basement that revitalizes the long-dormant career of a legendary psychedelic singer who calls himself "The Inscrutable Whom."

Gentility is not the hallmark of Snyder's books: They're violent, unsparing and tough on both the reader and the characters. But they're very clever, he has a lot of fun with his words and his people, and gets in plenty of jabs at the music industry. A lot of his more outrageous scenes actually come from real life: his own experiences as a composer and performer, and those of his friends. Here's a quote from The Night Men:

"It was at a big music trade show in Los Angeles, and the Theremin had been a geek-attractor in the booth of a small, innovative music software company that was, during the short span of the show, courted, acquired, reorganized to maximize effectiveness and summarily executed, no survivors reported, for no apparent reason, by a large guitar manufacturer that was, despite having no business acquiring such companies in the first place, famous for leaving a trail of their smoking carcasses strewn across the landscape."

I couldn't have said it better; especially, not in one sentence.


Paul Lehrman has written three books, all of which were considered nonfiction at the time.

Copyright ©2003 by Paul D. Lehrman