Thursday, March 04, 2021

Readin’ and a-Rockin’

By Fraser Massey
“Nights were the hard part. The days were just a series of routines. That was how prison worked. Doors unlocked. Breakfast. Work. Association. More meals. The day was split into periods, like a school timetable, and so it passed with the tick of the clock and the constant fear of saying the wrong thing to the wrong person. The nights were different, though, because that’s when he heard it …”

That opening fairly crackles with promise. But when Neil White, author of the Laura McGanity detective tales, wrote it 10 years ago at the start of “Stairway to Heaven,” the first entry in a short-story anthology titled Off the Record and published by Guilty Conscience, he couldn’t have known he was kicking off a whole new subgenre of crime fiction. Nor could Luca Veste, that volume’s music- and crime-loving editor (soon afterwards to pen detective novels himself), who had persuaded White and 37 other authors from both sides of the Atlantic to contribute yarns to his book, all based on classic song titles.

Three years later, when editor Joe Clifford put together an impressive array of crime-writing talent—Dennis Lehane, James Grady, Hilary Davidson, Chuck Wendig, Jordan Harper, and many more—for the Gutter Books release Trouble in the Heartland, he took an important step forward in the development of rock music/crime anthologies by pretty much setting up the template on which most have since been modeled: Take a band of classic song titles by a much-loved act or an individual artist, and then convince a bunch of writers to use those as jumping-off points for their own short stories.

For Trouble in the Heartland, the focus was on the music of Bruce Springsteen. In the years since, a virtual cottage industry has grown up to produce additional volumes featuring crime- and mystery-tinged tales inspired by the songs of Lou Reed, Joni Mitchell, Steely Dan, Johnny Cash, The Go-Gos, and others.

While Clifford’s approach is now the accepted formula for creating a rock music anthology, alternative methods are still occasionally tried. For instance, in his collection of stories dedicated to the music of the Canadian band Tragically Hip, 2016’s Tragically Hip, Twisted (published by Back Door Chucks), thriller writer David Sachs opted to compose the whole lot himself. Last year’s Peace, Love, and Crime, edited by Sandra Murphy and published by Untreed Reads, returned to Vesta’s Off the Record format of using song titles popularized by a whole range of different acts, which in this case included everyone from Bob Dylan to Jan and Dean. Murphy’s only stipulation to writers such as Maxim Jakubowski, Mary Keliikoa,and Earl Staggs was that they chose numbers that were popular during the 1960s.

Last month saw two additional rock/crime anthologies reach book retailers within days of one another: The Great Filling Station Holdup (Down & Out) was inspired by the songs of Jimmy Buffett, while Coming Through in Waves (Gutter) features stories that share their titles with Pink Floyd tracks. (Full disclosure: I wrote one of the stories in that Pink Floyd volume.)

Two such works reaching print in such close proximity could be coincidental, but it might also indicate how popular rock/crime anthologies are becoming. Even if the latter is true, though, it’s probably going to be a while yet before Amazon devotes a special bestsellers chart to such collections.

In the case of Buffett, there’s evidence suggesting the singer-songwriter and “mayor of Margaritaville” might actually be a crime-fiction fan. The lyrics to “Incommunicado,” included in his 1981 Coconut Telegraph album, name-check both legendary novelist John D. MacDonald and his most celebrated protagonist, Travis McGee.

On the other hand, none of the members of Pink Floyd has been known to express any particular love for detective fiction. However, their breakthrough hit single in their native Great Britain, 1967’s “Arnold Layne,” celebrated a petty criminal with a specialist interest in stealing freshly laundered ladies’ underwear.

For the Jimmy Buffett anthology, edited by Josh Pachter, Agatha Award-nominated author Bruce Robert Coffin submitted the story based on “Incommunicado.” And Derringer Award nominee Bill Baber fleshes out the Layne character for a tale in the Pink Floyd collection, which was edited by T. Fox Dunham.

Crime fiction, of course, has existed in the DNA of rock ’n’ roll ever since the early days of that popular music genre. Songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller wore their hearts on their sleeves for “Searchin’,” their 1957 hit for The Coasters. Its lost love/missing person lyrics pay tribute to the analytical skills of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, Earl Derr Biggers’ Honolulu cop, Charlie Chan, Joe Friday of Dragnet fame, Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade, Jack Boyle’s now largely forgotten Boston Blackie, and Bulldog Drummond, created by “Sapper” (aka H.C. MacNeile).

More recently, Robert Crais has crafted a much-loved series of yarns featuring a Los Angeles private eye named after the king of rock ’n’ roll. Ian Rankin titled two novels and one short-story collection featuring his hard-drinking Edinburgh detective, John Rebus, after albums by the Rolling Stones. And Lee Child first introduced his itinerant former military policeman, Jack Reacher, in 1997’s Killing Floor, which took its name from a 1965 Howling Wolf track. That book, by the way, also found Reacher searching for the grave of veteran bluesman and ragtime guitarist
Blind Blake.

True connoisseurs of the crossover between crime fiction and contemporary music might want to draw special attention to the novels penned by Texan maverick country singer Kinky Friedman, featuring a thinly disguised fictional version of himself solving murders and righting wrongs between gigs.

But kudos must be given as well to British singer-songwriter Charlie Dore. She pulled off an epic feat, on her 2004 Sleep All Day album, by including a track which managed to work the entire plot of Elmore Leonard’s Maximum Bob into one 5-minute, 54-second song—while still leaving enough time for a trumpet solo.

Taking us back to where we started in this piece, it should be noted that Off the Record compiler Luca Veste nowadays joins regularly with fellow UK crime-fictionists Stuart Neville, Mark Billingham, Doug Johnstone, Val McDermid, and Chris Brookmyre to perform in a band called the Fun Lovin’ Crime Writers, which (to quote from its own Web site) offers “a full-on rawk experience, murdering songs for fun in front of anyone who will listen.” The group even boasts a wryly knowing repertoire of appropriate material that includes “Paperback Writer” by The Beatles and Elvis Costello’s “Watching the Detectives.” For the most part, the Fun Lovin’ Crime Writers play at literary festivals, but in the summer of 2019 they graduated to the stage of Europe’s biggest rock festival at Glastonbury.

I can’t speak to the writing process of any other contributor to these many rock/crime anthology volumes, but I can tell you how I wrote my own story for Coming Through in Waves. I stared at a list of Pink Floyd song titles until inspiration finally hit. After connecting with one of the tunes—“Have a Cigar,” from the 1975 album Wish You Were Here—I played it on repeat while I mapped out the plot of my tale, making sure it reflected—as accurately as it could—the song’s distinctive mood.

Putting it together reminded me of my early days, before I became a daily newspaper staff hack, when I cut my teeth in journalism by writing for many now sadly defunct British music journals. The best of those was the alternative rock mag ZigZag, a sort of UK version of Rolling Stone. That monthly’s founding father, the great Pete Frame, used to say that the purpose of music journalism was to make readers want to listen to the stuff you were writing about.

I like to think part of the fun of rock/crime anthologies lies in the double whammy they provide of well-crafted stories and cleverly curated lists of tunes that demand just one more spin when you’ve finished reading. As David Sachs wrote in his introductory note to Tragically Hip, Twisted, “The stories stand on their own—you don’t need to know the music. But for a unique musico-literary experience, I recommend listening to the respective songs, low, on repeat, while reading … Or don’t. It’s a free country.”

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