Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Give Me the Beat, Boys, and Free My Soul*

Music has a powerful effect on our emotions, our responses and our learning. Research shows that music can help us remember things (if you doubt me on this one, try to think of the letters of the alphabet without thinking of the alphabet songs you learned as a child). It’s also been shown to have a significant effect on our reactions, both physical and emotional and, so some say, on our creativity. Music is such an integral part of the human experience that it shouldn’t surprise anyone that it’s also woven throughout crime fiction in subtle and not-so-subtle ways.

Ngaio Marsh’s Overture to Death has a very interesting musical theme and background (and an ingenious murder weapon). Everyone in the village of Chipping is getting ready for a charity musical recital. On the night of the performance, Miss Idris Campanula is playing a Rachmaninoff piece when all of a sudden, a shot rings out and she’s instantly killed. What’s strange about this murder is that no-one saw anyone aiming or firing a gun. Inspector Roderick Alleyn is called in to investigate, and he soon finds that there’s as much drama offstage as onstage. Miss Campanula was fond of spiteful gossip and knew secrets about most of the villagers. She’s also got an ongoing rivalry with another spinster, Miss Eleanor Prentice, for the affections of the rector, Walter Copeland. So there are plenty of suspects. There’s also the possibility that Miss Campanula might have been killed by accident, since Miss Prentice had been going to play the piece originally. As he interviews the suspects, Alleyn finds that almost all of them could have committed the crime. In the end, Alleyn finds out who the murderer was, and discovers the clever trick that the murderer used to commit the crime without being seen.

There’s a very interesting mystery in Simon Boswell’s debut novel, The Seven Symphonies, which features Helsinki homicide detective Miranda Lewis. Miranda has a musical background, as her father is a musicologist and her sister, Rosie, is a cellist. Miranda’s knowledge about music in general and Jean Sibelius in particular comes in very useful when a young woman’s body is found propped against the monument to Sibelius in Helsinki’s Sibelius Park. The woman’s been strangled and her little finger cut off. Next to her is a violin. Then, another body is found. It’s not long before Miranda and her investigation team realize that they’re on the trail of a serial killer. This isn’t an ordinary killer, though; each of the murders is related in some way to one of Sibelius’ symphonies. Also, after each murder, the killer sends a letter to the police; the letters contain cryptic references to the symphonies, a quotation from Sibelius’ diary, the victim’s fingerprint and the signature, JS. Once Miranda realizes that these murders are tied in with the Sibelius symphonies, she also realizes that she and her team don’t have much time to find the killer. Besides the crimes that are at the center of the plot, this novel also includes a lot of interesting information on Sibelius, his life and his music.

Paul Adam’s The Rainaldi Quartet is also centered on music, this time on musical instruments. Tomaso Rainaldi is a luthier, a maker of violins who also occasionally has a violin pupil. He is also a member of a string quartet that includes fellow-luthier Gianni Castiglione (from whose point of view the story is told), local parish priest father Arrighi, and police detective Guastafeste. One evening, the group gathers to play, when Rainaldi hints that he’s been on a mysterious quest. He won’t give any details, but promises to tell everyone another time. That night, Rainaldi is stabbed in the back of the neck with a chisel. Guastafeste begins to investigate with the help of Castiglione, who’s got a background in rare violins. It seems that Rainaldi was in search of the Messiah's Sister, a unique violin created by Stradivarius. When the other members of the quartet find this out, they decide to see if they can finish what Rainaldi started, even though they’re not even sure this mythical violin exists. They’re also not sure that the killer only had one victim in mind.

Elizabeth George’s A Traitor to Memory is focused in part on a brilliant violinist, twenty-eight-year-old Gideon Davies. Davies’ world comes apart one night when he tries to begin to play, and can’t remember anything about music. It seems he’s had a bout with amnesia, and the only thing that may help is a chance to go back and remember everything he can. So he undergoes psychoanalysis to find out what might have triggered his loss. Then, his estranged mother, Eugenia Davies, is killed in a deliberate hit-and-run crash one night. Inspector Thomas “Tommy” Lynley and Sergeant Barbara Havers and their team investigate the murder and soon find that Eugenia Davies’ death is related to the long-ago drowning death of her other child, Sonia, for which Sonia’s then-nanny, Katja Wolff was imprisoned. Lynley’s superior, Superintendent Malcolm Webberly, may also have a connection to the case, as he was involved in the investigation of Sonia’s death, and might have had a close relationship with Eugenie Davies. Lynley and his team find that they have to go back to that earlier death, just as Gideon does in his psychoanalysis, to find out the real reason Eugenie Davies was killed.

There’s also a musical setting for Robert Goldsborough’s Murder in E Minor. Milan Stevens is the well-known conductor for the New York Symphony. He’s been receiving threatening letters and his niece, Maria Radovich, fears for his life. So she seeks out celebrated detective Nero Wolfe to ask him to find out who’s been threatening her uncle. Wolfe agrees to take the case, which is a surprise to his assistant, Archie Goodwin, since Wolfe had been retired for some time. Then, Goodwin finds out that Milan Stevens is really Milos Stefanovic, a freedom fighter from Montenegro, who saved Wolfe’s life. So Wolfe feels he owes his friend a debt. By the time he and Goodwin begin to investigate, though, Milan Stevens has been stabbed with a letter opener. The prime suspect is Maria’s boyfriend, Gerald Milner, with whom Stevens had a violent argument on the day of his death. There are other suspects, too, though, including the orchestra’s managing director and its associate conductor. Soon, Milner is jailed for the crime, and Maria begs Wolfe and Goodwin to clear her boyfriend’s name and find out who her uncle’s real killer was.

In my own B-Very Flat, former homicide detective-turned professor Joel Williams helps to find the murderer of violin virtuosa Serena Brinkman. Serena dies suddenly on the night of an important musical competition, and Williams and the local police find out that there were several suspects. Among them are a musical rival, an obsessed fan, a cousin who’s got problems of his own, a student whose secret Serena has accidentally found out, and a professor who can’t resist Serena’s rare Amati violin.

Even when music isn’t at the center of a murder mystery, it’s sometimes woven into a story. For instance, in Agatha Christie’s One, Two, Buckle My Shoe (AKA The Patriotic Murders and An Overdose of Death), Hercule Poirot investigates the murder of his dentist, Mr. Morley. Scotland Yard thinks that the intended victim might have been one of Mr. Morley’s other patients, wealthy and powerful banker Alistair Blunt, so Poirot makes Blunt’s acquaintance. When another of Morley’s patients disappears, Blunt asks Poirot to investigate the murder and disappearance. Later, Poirot is invited for the week-end to Blunt’s home in the country. While he’s attending church services with Blunt and his family, a hymn that everyone’s singing gives Poirot an important insight into who the killer is. In fact, he’s so started by that realization that he calls attention to himself.

Music is also a very powerful influence on fictional sleuths. Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes of course, plays the violin for solace and inspiration. Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse is very fond of music, and often has classical music playing in his car and at home. Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus is also a fan of music, although not classical music, and there are many mentions of music in the Rebus novels. Lilian Jackson Braun’s sleuth, Jim Qwilleran, loves music, too, and those novels also often feature him listening to music. It’s quite a common theme with fictional sleuths.

What do you think of crime fiction novels with a musical theme? If you enjoy them, which are your favorites?

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Dobie Gray’s Drift Away.

On Another Note....

My sincere thanks to Ann at All Write With Coffee for this lovely Sugar Doll Blogger award. I'm really honored that you chose Confessions... as one of your awardees, Ann. Mostly, I appreciate your reading my blog and taking the time to comment.

The award rules ask me to pass this along to other blogs. However, there are so many other blogs that inspire me and teach me and just make life fun that I don't think I could make a list. So...here is what I will ask you to do, kind readers. The next time you're nice enough to stop by and comment, choose another commenter whose blog you haven't checked out before, or haven't checked out lately and pay that blog a visit and leave a comment. Tell 'em Margot sent you ; ). Oh, and please start with Ann's wonderful blog if you're not familiar with it. Lots of terrific insights on writing await you there. Thanks, all, and thanks again, Ann! You're very kind.


  1. Congratulations on the award, richly deserved.

    I like the idea of having a musical theme in a murder mystery. Music is a large part of our lives so it should also be part of the books we read. Enjoyed the post.

  2. First off, thanks for the mention. I really appreciate it.

    Second, I've read the book by Elizabeth George and I thought it was wonderful I haven't really read the others but I was wondering if during the writing of their work, they had to listen to a certain type of music. For example, when writing your novel, B-flat, did you like to listen to classical music with violin, like Vivaldi?


  3. You had me with the title of the post. Try reading it without humming the words. Impossible--unless you live under a rock and don't know the song, in which case get thee to playlist ASAP.

  4. Mason - Thank you very much : ). You're right, too, that music is a very important part of the human experience. Just about every culture has some musical way of expressing itself. So yes, I think so too; things that are that much a part of life should be reflected in crime fiction.

    Ann - Isn't A Traitor to Memory a fine book? At least I think so. And what an interesting question you ask! I can't speak for other authors, of course; each author does what works best for her or him. When I was writing B-Very Flat, I actually did listen to some classical violin music (funny you would mention Vivaldi, because that was one of my choices). But then, I'm a music person, so listening to music helped me "get into" my victim's character.

    And it's my pleasure to mention your terrific blog!

    Tara - I am still chuckling at your comment! How funny! And yes, I was kind of proud of that choice for a title. That's one of those songs that I always sing along to - loudly.

  5. Congratulations on your well-deserved award!

    I have enjoyed many stories with musical themes, but it is easier for me to appreciate them when it is classical music. Bach is my all-time favourite, and I am never happier than when my daughter plays one of his preludes on the piano or organ for me.

  6. Dorte - Thank you : )! I know what you mean about Bach, too; I find his music soothing, and yet with so many layers. He was an extraordinary artist, and it's always a pleasure to listen to his music - his and Mozart's.

  7. Firstly, thanks SO much for the earworm. Really, thanks.

    Secondly, of course I'm a fan of A TRAITOR TO MEMORY (large shock, I know). I found it one of her most complex novels, and a fascinating study of human psychology. But then again, Ms. George is always far more interested in the why rather than the who.

    I usually listen to classical music when I'm writing - I can't listen to music with lyrics as I start listening to the words and then my brain explodes. I have many, many classical CDs, but I also listen (bless the internet) to a classical radio station from London. I get my music and news and weather from England. A win on all fronts.

    Yep, I can still hear that song. Thanks again, Margot.

  8. Elspeth - Oh, my pleasure : ). I'm always happy to send earworms along ; ).

    You're right about Elizabeth George, too. I think that's actually one of the most appealing things about her writing; she explores the inner workings of psychology, and I find that really compelling.

    It's funny you would mention songs with lyrics and how you use classical music when you write. I'm much the same way in that I find it hard to write if there's music with lyrics playing. I find myself getting too "sucked into" what I'm listening to, and not able to focus on writing. I do like classical, but I also really like instrumental jazz, especially classic jazz. And yes, the internet has expanded my musical collection exponentially : ).

  9. Congrats from me too. A nice classical mystery with a musical theme - and pivotal clue! - is When the Wind Blows, by Cyril Hare.

  10. Martin - Thank you : ). And thanks for the recommendation to read When the Wind Blows. It always amazes me how many books I've missed out through the years, and I always appreciate reminders of them : ).