“Music certainly establishes character in my books, and probably mood also. You can tell a lot about Rebus in particular from his choices of listening (he's moody, a loner, and so on, plus he comes from a certain social group - being a Stones fan over the Beatles usually marks you out as working class, or at the very least rebellious), and tells us his age, being a fan of Stones, Hendrix, Hawkwind, etc, he's likely to be late 40s/early 50s.” With a constant soundtrack in my own head as I move through my day (today, for some horrible reason, Helen Reddy’s “Delta Dawn“), the idea of a lead character having the same experience seems a natural extension and progression of the who we’re dealing with within the context of a book. As Leonard Bernstein says, “Music.... can name the unnamable and communicate the unknowable.” The lead is now a person instead of a mere character. And, upon reflection, quite a few authors use music to establish mood and character. I was staggered at just how many mystery and crime writers use melody in their work.
Mark Billingham’s protagonist, Tom Thorne, doesn’t have the complete Rebus rebellion streak. But, he has a dark side which fuels his own need for justice. I asked Billingham if he agrees music helps build character and mood. “Very much. Everyone connects in some way with music - even if it's just to shout at the radio for playing songs that don't have tunes - and I wanted music to be an important part of my central character Tom Thorne's life. It was also important that the music he was into was of a sort that kind of marked him out a little. I want Thorne to be as deceptive as the music he loves. As “not what he seems“. As oddball in many ways and going against the grain. He's dark, and edgy, but he'll also have a good old sob to Hank Williams after one glass of wine too many, you know? It's important that Thorne's musical taste is broadly my own. It's just about the only thing he does have in common with me (except a birthday) but I need to do such a lot of research in other areas, I want the music part to be easy. Music can be a useful shorthand in terms of establishing mood. You can also use it to subvert a mood and I find that can be equally powerful. His favourite artist, and one of mine, is Johnny Cash. He is perfect for that. He has a voice that can be tender one minute and murderous the next in a way that Phil Collins could never be.” The crime writer Ace Atkins adds, “Music plays such a huge part in American culture that it’s hard to ignore as a character. For me, writing about Memphis would be useless without providing readers with a soundtrack.Pelecanos pontificates in a similar vein. “I can't listen to music with vocals while I write because the words collide with the words running through my head. So I listen to instrumental music: electric jazz (70's Miles and Mahavishnu), acid jazz, trip-hop (or whatever they're calling it this week), and movie soundtracks. The music of Ennio Morricone has been in heavy rotation in my computer these past three years while I was writing the Strange/Quinn trilogy, because those books are urban westerns, and because his music is beautiful. I felt it helped me pace the scenes. Also, I was plain into it. Bullitt/Dirty Harry-era Lalo Schifrin was another favorite.” When I plugged some Ennio in I felt strangely compelled to don spurs and roll my own cigarettes despite the fact that I don’t smoke. I closed my eyes and tried to picture D.C. and couldn’t. My respect for Pelecanos increases.
“In terms of the ACTUAL writing, I don't listen to music at all.” Billingham responds “I find it far too easy to sing along and drum on the desk when I should be typing. I listen to music all the time when I'm not actually working, through the course of a novel and that does change book to book. When I'm stuck into a story I listen to far less seventies stuff than I would normally - immersing myself far more in country and alt. country music. Always on the lookout for something new for Thorne to discover. Right now I'm going through a major Steve Earle phase having just read a wonderful biography and so Thorne is likely to be listening to "Guitar Town" and "El Corazon" quite a lot in the book to come...” Earle’s short stories and music ride the edge that many mystery protagonists spend their fictional lives on, and that’s probably why Pelecanos’s Quinn finds shelter in Earle’s blue collar world. In a surreal twist, Earle himself has released a collection of short stories “Dog House Roses” trying to use his lyric writing skills to tell a story without a melody. Paradox? Maybe? Or just an extension of his writing ability.
Connolly concurs with the no music while actually writing rule. “I don't actually listen to music when I write. I just find it too distracting. I used to have a stereo in my office, but I got rid of it. It just made the place look cluttered.” Can’t have a cluttered office when writing about spiders, can we? But, again, music plays an important role. “Music has been inspirational, though. When I'm thinking about a book - maybe when I'm walking or driving - I sometimes use music to help me concentrate. When I despaired of ever finishing Every Dead Thing - which was often, as it took five years - I would listen to “Something I Can Never Have” by Nine Inch Nails. It's a supremely sinister piece of music, and effectively soundtracks that book. Similarly, I always associate Depeche Mode's “Home” with Dark Hollow. That was the song I listened to when I ran into trouble with it, or just needed to get in the mood to write. Parts of the Sweet Hereafter soundtrack have also helped, at times, particularly the second track.”
Fitzhugh is in accord with silence. “I never listen to music while actually writing. I have a dilapidated building on the back of my property that I call The Way Back. I've got my album and cd collection back there with my seventies-era Klipsch Heresy speakers, turntables, cd players, mixing board, etc. I go back there a few nights a week to drink whiskey, smoke a cigar, and listen to music while I think about the current book, make notes on it. Figure out what has to happen next. But I don't do any writing out there. Right now, working on Radio Activity (which is set in a 'classic rock' radio station), I'm listening to all the great stuff from '67 to '77 that classic rock radio stations never play.” I think if Rankin ever entered the Way Back with Fitzhugh, we wouldn’t see either of them for months.
“I never turn down blues or any music with good harmonica,” Vicki Hendricks notes. “It's the dark side of life that appeals to me, as it does in my writing, I guess. On the writing of the current novel in progress Cruel Poetry, I've listened to Santana's Supernatural over and over for hours and hours. Sometimes I set the CD player to repeat “Smooth” and never change it, because it has just the attitude I want. One of the characters in the novel has Cuban parents, but was born in New Jersey. I can't remember if I created the character before or after I started listening to the Santana CD, so now it's all inseparable, and the Latin flavor in the form of dialogue permeates the manuscript, as well as the obsessive plea for love to someone who is so “smooth“.”
With music playing such a prominent role in many of their novels, another question occurred to me. Have any been musicians?
Rankin would have been an excellent rock star. “I've never been a musician; too lazy. Bought a guitar at 12, but wouldn't take lessons, so never learned anything. Joined a new wave band at 18. Only lasted a year. Band was called The Dancing Pigs (they pop up in 'Black and Blue', as a mega-successful band, a kind of U2 or REM). I was vocalist; wrote the lyrics. Good fun, but we never got anywhere.” It is amazingly easy to picture Rankin as lead vocalist. The author photo on the early novels gives credence to the Dancing Pigs story but Rankin in person and animated drives it home.
Billingham has a similar account. “I was in a band at school and at college as the lead singer. I don’t play an instrument but have always been a songwriter. The first things I ever wrote were songs which I continued to do through the late eighties and nineties as half of a musical comedy act.” This merry man chose, instead, to become one of the best new crime writers to come out of the UK.
Fitzhugh is frank in regards to his musicianship. “The only instrument I can play is the stereo. But I'm very good on it. When I worked in radio it used to be axiomatic that djs were just frustrated musicians. Maybe. I would love to be able to play piano or guitar but I absolutely lack the facility to understand music (keys, chords, scales, etc.) But for some reason I can listen to the end of a song and think of another one that will sound great after it. This was a useful skill when radio was about music. It is no longer of any value commercially.” But, what an asset he must be at wedding receptions.
Atkins has aspirations. “I’m working on it. I think I’ve stayed away from the pursuit of music because it might cloud the writing. But, I’m working on honing my harmonica skills so I might be able to play for an audience bigger than my dogs. So far, it only makes my dogs howl.” It’s better than making them run away. When I sang, my dog used to wince. But, for the most part, dogs are a polite and affable audience. Much more forgiving than their human counterparts, as we learn from the Connolly chronicles. “I was never a musician. I don't have a note in my head, and I dance like an ironing board. Despite that, my friend Mark once convinced me to enter our local talent competition with him. We called ourselves the Rabid Hounds, and covered Bob Dylan's Isis on synthesizer (me), and harmonica and guitar (Mark), despite the fact that we had never even handled any of these instruments before the night of the show. There is a tape of our performance - before about 300 people - which consists mainly of booing with a godawful racket playing in the background. About two minutes into it (following a plaintive appeal by our local priest, who was MCing the show, for us to come off on the grounds that we'd had our fun, as he put it) they turned the power off on us, so we completed the song acoustically. It wasn't much better, but at least nobody could hear it quite as well. We received nil (no points) from any of the three jurors. It was, apparently, a record. Even the 75-year-old comic - who couldn't remember the punchlines to his own jokes, and had to be prompted by the audience - got more than us.” Hans Christian Andersen said “Where words fail, music speaks.” Let’s be thankful that words rarely fail Connolly.