Friday, May 18, 2012

Jazz and crime fiction mix well

I’m a sucker for a good mystery. I’ve pretty much devoured the outpouring of crime-related  fictional works by Sue Grafton, J. A. Jance, and Tony Hillerman, as well as Nora Roberts’ J.D. Robb series about homicide detective Eve Dallas, who solves crimes set about 40 years in the future and is married to the richest man on the planet. Once I get my hands on a new one, it’s pretty much uninterrupted read time. That goes for the jazz-related mysteries as well, which got me to thinking this week about why jazz and fictional crime blend so well together.

Drummer Bill Moody has had consistent success since 1994 with his Evan Horne series about a crime-solving pianist based in Los Angeles but also sleuthing at times in Las Vegas. There are seven of them, the most receipt being 2011’s Fade to Blue: An Evan Horne Mystery. It is best to start with Solo Hand and work your way chronologically through the series. Three of the books touch on or explore mysterious elements in the deaths of Wardell Grey, Clifford Brown and Chet Baker, adding another dose of fascination for those knowledgeable about the jazz scene.

Moody’s latest is not an Evan Horne book. It has a different sort of intrigue on a transatlantic scale. Czechmate: The Spy Who Played Jazz involves 1960s Cold War Europe, something that’s more akin to John LeCarre.

Joan Merrill, a Pacific Northwest-based writer, producer and manager of jazz artists, has added her own twist to the jazz-tinged crime-solving genre with three (so far) Casey McKie mysteries. McKie is a San Francisco private investigator whose closest friend is a septuagenarian jazz singer/club owner. The thirty-something PI looks into various suspected crimes at the request of the friend, Dee Jefferson, who used to sing with the King Basington Band. (How’s that for a literary mash-up of Count Basie and Duke Ellington?) 

Merrill’s first book in her series was 2009’s And All That Murder about the death of a club owner. Then came 2010’s And All That Sea about a musicians’ benefactor known as “The Countess” who vanishes while aboard a jazz cruise. The latest, just out, concerns someone who is stalking and killing rising or aspiring young jazz singers. It’s called And All That Stalking.

The sagas that unfold in Merrill’s books, as well as Moody’s, are well done. So are the way they capture the realities, the flavors and the challenges of the jazz scene from the perspectives of the performer, the club owner, the hard-core fan and the casual listener. Read them in order and enjoy. You too may wonder why jazz, murders and fiction mix so well.

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