“Whistle While You Work” – The influence of music on writing

November 3, 2008 at 2:11 am (books, Bouchercon 2008, Music, Mystery fiction)

Thomas B. Kavanagh, Peter Robinson, moderator Don Bruns, Roz Southey, and John Harvey

Left to right: Thomas B. Kavanagh, Peter Robinson, moderator Don Bruns, Roz Southey, and John Harvey

[Click to enlarge image.]

Oh my goodness…John Harvey and Peter Robinson in the same room at the same time. Marge and I were in bliss: these are our crime fiction rock stars!

All the writers on this panel are keen music lovers; a couple even make music themselves from time to time. Most importantly, music plays a key role in their fiction.

During the panel discussion, Tom Cavanagh observed that in the context of a novel, music serves to create or reinforce a mood, illuminate character, and affect the pace of events.

This first entry in Cavanagh’s Mike Garrity series was nominated for the Shamus Award for best hardback private eye novel of 2007.

Next, comes Peter Robinson. Robinson’s Alan Banks novels have a soundtrack all their own. Everything from Shostakovich symphonies to golden oldies from the fifies and sixties finds its way onto these richly varied playlists. Marge and I both have a longstanding loyalty to this superb series.

The first in the Alan Banks series

The first in the Alan Banks series

The latest Alan Banks - Number 18!

The latest Alan Banks - Number 18!

Don Bruns is a new name to me. Writer and musician, he brought his guitar along and played for us a fine song, composed by himself.

Bruns is the author of two series, one of which features Mick Sever, a journalist whose beat is rock music. In addition he has edited, along with Claudia Bishop, several story collections. One, A Merry Band of Murderers, comes with a CD that features original numbers by each of the authors.

Next to Don sat Roz Southey. Roz really intrigued me, as she is a musicologist with a specialty in English music performance in eighteenth cenutry England. Not only  that- she lives in the north of England, a region with which I am currently fascinated.

Roz also writes crime fiction set in Newcastle-upon-Tyne in the eighteenth century. Her protagonist, Charles Patterson, is a musician who attempts to eke out a living by giving lessons and leading local performing groups. I bought Chords and Discords at Bouchercon’s Den of Temptation, the Book Room. I was enjoying the sense of place evoked by Southey – enjoying the novel in general. And then “spirits” began to appear…

I’m not a fan of supernatural elements in crime fiction. I find them superfluous and distracting. And if there’s anything I learned in my recent trips to England (three times in three years – I should be there now; I’m longing for the place) it is that ghosts are already everywhere. They don’t need to be invoked with such specificity. Okay – this may just be my own problem. It’s the chief reason why, despite being utterly   delighted by The Coroner’s Lunch, I chose not to continue with Colin Cotterill’s Dr. Siri Payboun series.

I put my reading of Chords and Discords on hold as of page 40. I may go back to it at a later time. (Same goes for the Siri Payboun novels.)

Finally, we come to John Harvey. Harvey recently brought Charlie Resnick back as the protagonist in his latest crime fiction Cold in Hand. I almost wish he hadn’t. Out of respect for those who have not yet read it, I won’t say why. I’ll just that this is a terrific novel; please drop everything and read it now!

Cold in Hand is suffused with a love of  the American jazz greats of the forties and fifties. Harvey’s loving, meticulous descriptions of this music are  both scholarly and compelling. I’ve always considered music a tough subject for the writer. If you love it – as my husband and I do – it’s hard to explain why. Like religious faith, it comes to you along a pathway that seems to bypass the intellect. One of the reasons we cherish music so is that it is living proof that there is more to us as human beings than what is contained in our rational minds. There can be no more compelling sound on the planet than a great orchestra ascending to the height of its powers. The final movement of Mahler’s First Symphony, or Tchaikovsky’s Fourth – Heaven storming! But can I say exactly why they affect me as they do? No. But for me, these treasures are beyond price.

Below: the last movement of Mahler’s Symphony No.1, appropriately nicknamed  ‘Titan,’ conducted by classical music’s current wunderkind, Gustavo Dudamel

It’s the same for Charlie Resnick, with his love of the jazz masters.


  1. Logan Lamech said,

    It’s an intriguing connection and many interesting titles to choose from.

    Logan Lamech

  2. End of summer crime fiction roundup: some good reading here « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] long been a fan of the novels of John Harvey. Harvey first gained a following in this country with the series featuring Charlie Resnick.  A […]

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