TWENTY OUTSTANDING “MUSIC AND CRIME”
SHORT STORIES & NOVELETTES
A List by Josef Hoffmann
Asimov, Isaac: Mystery Tune (also: Death Song), in: Show Business Is Murder, edited by Isaac Asimov, Martin Harry Greenberg, Carol-Lynn Waugh, N. Y. 1983
Music: a simple melody. Crime: murder of a piano player.
Brown, Fredric: Murder Set to Music, in: The SAINT Mystery Library # 3, edited by Leslie Charteris, N. Y. 1959 (originally published as “Murder to Music,” in: The Saint Detective Magazine, January 1957)
Music: jazz standards. Crime: murder of an ex-jazz musician.
Chandler, Raymond: The King in Yellow, in:The Simple Art of Murder, Boston 1950; (originally published in Dime Detective Magazine, March 1938)
Music: jam session of “hot music.” Crime: revenge killing of a star trumpet player.
Christie, Agatha: Swan Song, in: The Listerdale Mystery, London 1934; reprinted in: Thomas Godfrey (ed.): Murder at the Opera, London 1989.
Music: opera La Tosca by Puccini. Crime: murder of a baritone.
Cody, Liza: Walking Blues, in: John Harvey (ed.):Blue Lightning, London 1998.
Music: rock music. Crime: overdose of a rockstar.
Deaver, Jeffrey: Nocturne, in: John Harvey (ed.): Blue Lightning, London 1998.
Music: Mozart; Smokey Robinson. Crime: robbery of a Stradivarius.
Gorman, Ed: False Idols, in: Ed Gorman (ed.): The Second Black Lizard Anthology of Crime Fiction, Berkeley 1988.
Music: rock’n'roll, especially Elvis Presley. Crime: murder of an old, nearly forgotten rock’n'roll singer.
Gruber, Frank: Words and Music, in Black Mask 22, No. 12 (March 1940); reprinted in: Frank Gruber: Brass Knuckles, Los Angeles 1966.
Music: a romantic hit-tune. Crime: poisoning of a song-writer.
Harvey, John: Cool Blues, in: John Harvey (ed.): Blue Lightning, London 1998.
Music: jazz, especially Duke Ellington. Crime: a series of thefts against women.
Hoch, Edward D.: The Spy Who Went to the Opera, in: Thomas Godfrey (ed.): Murder at the Opera, London 1989.
Music: opera La Gioconda by Ponchielli. Crime: espionage, attempt with a bomb.
Howard, Clark: Horn Man, in: Ed Gorman (ed.): The Black Lizard Anthology of Crime Fiction, Berkeley 1987.
Music: Traditional Jazz in New Orleans. Crime: murder of two lovers.
Irish, William (C. Woolrich): The Dancing Detective, in: The Dancing Detective, Philadelphia 1946 (originally published as “Dime a Dance,” in: Black Mask 20, No. 12 (February 1938)).
Music: jazz standards in a dance mill. Crime: a taxi dancer is strangled to death.
Leonard, Elmore: When the Women Come Out to Dance, in: The Best American Noir of the Century, ed. by James Ellroy & Otto Penzler, Boston, N. Y. 2010 (originally published in: Elmore Leonard: When the Women Come Out to Dance, London 2002).
Music: dance music for strippers, for example Bad Company. Crime: murder of a rich husband.
Mertz, Stephen: Death Blues, in: Ed Gorman (ed.): The Second Black Lizard Anthology of Crime Fiction, Berkeley 1988.
Music: Rhythm&Blues. Crime: attempted murder against a blues veteran.
Moseley, Walter: Blue Lightning, in: John Harvey (ed.): Blue Lightning, London 1998.
Music: blues, played with a trumpet. Crime: shooting of a woman.
Paretsky, Sara: Grace Notes, in: Windy City Blues, N. Y. 1995.
Music: sheet-music by Mozart. Crime: burglary.
Rankin, Ian: Glimmer, in John Harvey (ed.): Blue Lightning, London 1998.
Music: rock music of The Rolling Stones. Crime: killing of a concert-goer.
Reeves, Robert: Danse Macabre, in:Black Mask 23, No. 12 (April 1941); reprinted in: Otto Penzler (ed.): Pulp Fiction The Dames, London 2008.
Music: Swing, torch-songs. Crime: murder of a dance hostess.
Stout, Rex: The Gun with Wings, in: Curtains for Three, N. Y. 1951; reprinted in: Thomas Godfrey (ed.): Murder at the Opera, London 1989.
Music: operas. Crime: killing of a tenor with a revolver.
Underwood, Michael: Death at the Opera, in: Hilary Watson (ed.): Winter’s Crimes, London 1980; reprinted in: Show Business Is Murder, edited by Isaac Asimov, Martin Harry Greenberg, Carol-Lynn Waugh, N. Y. 1983.
Music: operas by Richard Wagner. Crime: murder of a opera-goer.
SWORDFISH. 2001. John Travolta, Hugh Jackman, Halle Berry, Don Cheadle, Sam Shepard, Vinnie Jones, Camryn Grimes. Director: Dominic Sena.
As a recently released felon, famed computer hacker Stanley Jobson (Jackman) is recruited by the beautiful and alluring Ginger (Halle Berry) to work for the mysterious (and ruthless) Gabriel Shear (Travolta). Needing money to help regain custody of his young daughter (Camryn Grimes), Stanley accepts, and during the rest of the movie he learns to regret his decision, many times, over and over again.
This is one of those movies where you are better off not asking questions and sitting back to enjoy the ride. If, that is, you are not bored with watching someone typing at a keyboard and pretending they are breaking into various money accounts scattered around the world. The less-meaningful (but visually far more spectacular) action that takes place is largely confined to a mini-prologue that works about as well as anything in the movie (with a bank under siege with hostages wired to blow up) and in the last thirty minutes or so, when all of the safety latches are set loose.
Lots of large-scale explosives going off, in other words. Cars careening around busy city streets and smashing into each other, large guns being fired and causing all kinds of havoc, and tons of other vehicles of several makes and models veering out of control and smashing into tall buildings and on several different levels. That still leaves an hour to fill, which of course does not mean there are not plenty of bad guys willing to do all kinds of bad things in those remaining sixty minutes.
Travolta and Jackman have the good parts, and both do well in them, with Travolta taking (in my opinion) top honors as a truly Machiavellian mastermind, over the top and subtly clever at the same time. Amazing. (Unfortunately, with the need for pyrotechnics to keep the action crowd happy, “over the top” seems to prevail, more often than not, over common sense.)
This following statement may seem to be totally contradictory, or maybe it’s just me, but Halle Berry appears too aware of herself to be truly sexy, but those commentators who have described her much-maligned topless scene as “gratuitous” should watch the movie again.
NEVADA. Paramount, 1927. Gary Cooper, Thelma Todd, William Powell, Philip Strange, Ernie S. Adams, Christian J. Frank, Ivan Christy, Guy Oliver. Based on a novel by Zane Grey. Director: John Waters. Shown at Cinevent 38, Columbus OH, May 2006.
Gary Cooper is “Nevada,” a wandering cowboy with a tendency to get into trouble, who, with his sidekick Cash Burridge (Ernie S. Adams), seeks refuge on a ranch whose owner’s sister (Thelma Todd) quickly develops an interest in Nevada that’s not welcomed by Clan Dillon, her suitor, played by a polished (as always) William Powell. Ranches in the vicinity are being victimized by cattle rustlers and Nevada goes undercover in an attempt to ferret out the secretive mastermind whose identity is known only to Cawthorne (Ivan Christy), foreman of the ranch owned by Todd’s brother.
It’s good to see Todd in a leading dramatic role and she and Cooper make a highly combustible pair of lovers. The unmasking of the villain and the rehabilitation of the trouble-prone Nevada come together in a fast-paced climax that wraps up this fine Western drama in a most satisfying fashion.
The touch I most enjoyed was a meeting between Nevada and the still unidentified villain, with the villain’s face masked by a light shining into Nevada’s eyes, a nice variation on the masked villains of the ever popular chapter plays of the ’20s and ’30s.
CONSTANCE & GWENYTH LITTLE – Great Black Kanba. Doubleday Crime Club, hardcover, 1944. Dell #181, paperback, 1947 [mapback edition]. Rue Morgue Press, softcover, 1988.
Of all the subgenres in crime fiction, amnesia is my least favorite. The Little sisters here have made me forget — unintentional and probably unfunny joke — that bias with a not too plausible but entertaining story of a young woman who loses her memory after a blow to the head while on an Australian train-called Great Black Kanba, or snake, by the aborigines — in the early days of World War II. Worse, the young woman’s identity is mixed up with another female’s, and she is laid claim to by an odd family containing a blackmailer and perhaps a murderer.
Apparently the different areas of Australia built different gauge railroad tracks. To travel through Australia meant getting off one train and on to another; each change creates problems for the protagonist. The young woman loses her memory on one train, and on two others some unfortunate people have their throats slit.
Good fun with a plucky heroine, but don’t look for fair play.
– From The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 13, No. 4, Fall 1992.
NOTE: For a long insightful commentary on the Little sisters and their approach to mystery fiction — “comic cozies” — check out this page on the Rue Morgue Press website.
THE COUCH. Warner Brothers, 1962. Grant Williams, Shirley Knight, Onslow Stevens, William Leslie, Anne Helm. Screenplay by Robert Bloch, based on a story by Blake Edwards & Owen Crump. Director: Owen Crump.
ROBERT BLOCH – The Couch. Gold Medal s1192, paperback original, based on the film of the same title, 1962.
I spent last October reading ghost stories and watching old monster movies, as I usually do, and I like to close out a month like that with some Robert Bloch, so this year I picked The Couch, the 1962 Warners film and Bloch’s tie-in novelization (Gold Medal, 1962) of the screenplay he wrote with Blake Edwards and producer/director Owen Crump.
Which makes me wonder who was responsible for spinning a story out of what is essentially a shaggy-dog joke; imagine the set up: a guy walks down the street, murders a perfect stranger, then hurries to his psychiatrist’s office to talk about his mental problems.
The film that results could hardly be called stylish, but The Couch has a certain blunt impact I found hard to resist. Director Crump (also a writer and producer in his time, mostly of shorts and TV shows) puts the images on screen with a minimum of fuss—no tricky camera angles or long takes—but with admirable efficiency, probably thanks to cinematographer Harold Stine, who cut his teeth on TV shows like Dick Tracy and Superman.
As far as the story goes, it’s as fast and simple as the direction, with David, a mental patient just released from Prison, seeing a psychiatrist as a condition of his parole, and passing his time with random killings just before each visit — which probably beats reading old magazines, but still….
As the story proceeds, though, we get more than a loose catalogue of killings as the narrative is pegged to the things David’s shrink (and we the viewers) learn about him and his motives for mayhem. Or maybe what we think are his motives. Or maybe what David thinks are his motives, as the story turns into a tricky game of mental cat-and-mouse: the psychiatrist’s search through David’s psyche mirroring the Police hunt for the killer.
The acting, like the directing, is generally efficient and unfussy, but Grant Williams (best remembered as The Incredible Shrinking Man) plays the killer with a hysterical charm that adds nicely to the tension; one never knows whether (or when) he’s going to be the All-American Clean-Cut Boy or the Out-of-Control psycho, and he conveys both aspects of the character energetically and artfully enough to make one wish his career had gone further.
And speaking of the cast, I should add that the perplexed psychiatrist at the center of it all is played by none other than Onslow Stevens. To most folks that is hardly a name to conjure with, but he is known to fans of old monster movies as the last Mad Scientist of Universal’s grand old days, in the delirious House of Dracula, where he contended with Dracula, the Wolf Man and Frankenstein’s Monster, carrying his part with the seriousness proper for a final farewell.
Moving on to Bloch’s novelization of this, I was impressed that he put more effort into it than it really needed, and came out with a book worth reading in itself. Bloch adds a subtle sexual context to the tale where the movie couldn’t (not in 1962 anyway) and he takes time out to carp about the L.A. traffic and the collapse of civilization in general.
There are even a couple of eerily prescient bits where Bloch looks into the minds of people hearing about the serial killings and describes reactions—ranging from normal shock to paranoid fantasy — that seem to strangely pre-echo those of today (Events caught up to me as I wrote this.) However much I like Robert Bloch, I never thought of him as a writer for the ages until I read this and reflected sadly on how short a distance we’ve come in fifty years.
PETER DUCHIN & JOHN MORGAN WILSON – Blue Moon. Berkley, paperback reprint; 1st printing, November 2003. Hardcover first edition: Berkley, 2002.
Peter Duchin, son of famed pianist and bandleader Eddie Duchin, is a bandleader of some renown himself, so when he sits down to play — well, in this case, write a mystery — it certainly comes as no great surprise that his leading protagonist is Philip Damon, famed pianist and bandleader, and son of Archie Damon, leader of one of the most famous high society orchestras of the 30s.
Write what you know, they always say, and it’s obvious all the way through this name-dropping debut murder mystery novel that Peter Duchin knows whereof he writes. Aided and abetted by his Edgar-winning co-author, John Morgan Wilson, they together turn in a nicely tuned performance.
The Edgar, by the way, was for a book entitled Simple Justice, the first in Wilson’s noirish Benjamin Justice series, of which there are now five:
Simple Justice, 1996. [Edgar award, best first mystery]
Revision of Justice, 1997.
Justice at Risk, 1999. [Lambda award, best mystery]
The Limits of Justice, 2000. [Lambda award]
Blind Eye, October 2003.
The Justice series is, from what I’ve heard, rather tough and not for the faint of heart, but in Blue Moon, everything is frothier and very much light-hearted. As bubbly (in an early 1960s high society sense) as a murder mystery can get, you might almost say. The name-dropping begins in earnest on page two, and continues throughout the book.
Appearing on various occasions, many with speaking parts are: Jackie Kennedy, Truman Capote, George Plimpton, Joseph Kraft (and on the west coast) Joe DiMaggio, Herb Caen, Cary Grant, Kim Novak, Carol Channing, Alfred Hitchcock, Willie Mays, Melvin Belli, Dizzy Gillespie, Bill Cosby, Woody Allen, Clint Eastwood, Nina Simone, Gerry Mulligan, and I probably left out many others.
Nothing like hobnobbing with the stars. And there’s also nothing like the sit-up-and-say-oh-my-gosh effect that occurs on page 35 when the ballroom suddenly goes black, a scream rings out, and when the lights go back on, there is a body lying dead on the floor. When was the last time I read this happening? Ever? Did it happen only in the movies? Someone with a better memory than I will have to come up with the answer.
Damon’s own person demons (sorry, I couldn’t help myself) are also at work here. His wife, to whom he was married only three blissful years, was murdered two years earlier, and the case was never solved. Somehow the two deaths are connected, but how? Not trusting the abilities of a black homicide detective named Hercules Platt, whose name should remind you of some other famous detective, but I digress, Damon decides to do some amateur sleuthing on his own.
More deaths occur, and Platt proves himself worthy enough to be invited for an encore, both in an upcoming second pairing, Good Morning, Heartache (Berkley, 2003) and on stage, as Platt (surprisingly) has his own amateur sideline as an after-hours and more than competent jazz saxophonist. The detective work is more melodramatic in the closing than I’d prefer, but the period (a mere 40 years ago) is well-evoked, and the overall ambiance is suave, sophisticated and easy going down.
– November 2003.
[UPDATE] 12-26-12. Two additional Benjamin Justice novels published since this review was written are Moth And Flame (2004), and Rhapsody in Blood (2006). There seems to have been only the two books in the collaborative Philip Damon series.