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CRIME FICTION AND MUSIC
by Philip Scowcroft

Music, in all its forms, is a social and/or artistic activity of great importance and as literature so often reflects real life it is natural for the two to be closely associated. Studies of the interface between music and the literary work of, for example, Shakespeare, Milton, Jane Austen, the Brontes, Charles Dickens, George Eliot, Thomas Hardy, Rudyard Kipling, John Galsworthy, Oscar Wilde and many others have been published and I myself have indeed attempted some of those. But here I would like to examine briefly the connections between music and crime and mystery fiction, looking at, for example, "musical" settings for crime stories, music inspired by adaptations of those stories and one or two related topics.

The longer crime fiction has been with us, the more have its authors taken trouble with their background. Music in its various forms makes an attractive and often unusual background to crime. Take opera for example. Edmund Crispin’s Swan Song (1947) has the setting of a production of Wagner’s The Mastersingers of Nuremberg in Oxford with Crispin’s don detective Gervase Fen in good form; the climax comes when an attempt is made to murder the tenor lead just as he is about to sing the Prize Song! At least twice Robert Barnard imagines modern murder in an operatic situation (under a pseudonym he has published two mysteries set in the time of Mozart). In Death on the High Cs (1977) the victim is an Australian mezzo whose "recent Carmen was fresh in everyone’s mind. Brazen, blatant, torrid and vulgar it had had some critics reaching for their superlatives and others simply reaching". (She is naturally murdered). In Barnard’s Death and the Chaste Apprentice (1989), the opera, being produced in London’s suburbia, is Donizetti’s Adelaide di Birkenhead (yes, it is a fictitious opera but there are real Donizetti operas entitled Adelaide, simply, and Emilia di Liverpool). Lighter "opera" figures, too. The duo of Jill Staynes and Margaret Storey, and Gladys Mitchell, creator of Mrs Bradley, have gone for The Beggar’s Opera while Mollie Hardwick and, again Gladys Mitchell (with Mrs Bradley) have preferred Gilbert and Sullivan. Opera or operetta singers figure even in crime novels which do not have a primarily operatic ambience, for example the heroines of A E W Mason’s No other Tiger (1927), The Sapphire (1933) and They Wouldn’t Be Chessmen (1935). And a surprising number of investigators, police and other, enjoy opera: Sherlock Holmes, about whom more presently, Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse, a convinced Wagnerite, Mary Kelly’s Inspector Nightingale, who is married to an operatic diva, V C Clinton-Baddeley’s Dr R V Davie, another don detective, gentler than Gervase Fen, and many more.

But musical backgrounds to fictional crime of course extend beyond opera. In Edmund Crispin’s Frequent Hearses (1950) the setting is a film studio and we naturally hear about film music. "In his concert works "Napier" was a somewhat acrid modernist but like most such composers he unbuttoned, becoming romantic and sentimental, when he was writing for the films". Napier is delighted to be told that his latest film score is "beautiful", though he deprecatingly says, "Don’t judge me by this stuff". Crispin himself, whose real name was Bruce Montgomery, knew what he was talking about, as he was also a musician, composing not only church music, songs and a delightful Concertino for strings, recently (2001) recorded, but much film music notably for the early "Doctor" films and for the first four of the "Carry On" films.

Not all musical backgrounds involve classical music. For example jazz comes into Ngaio Marsh’s Swing Brother Swing (1949) and into John Wainwright’s Walther P38 and Do Nothin’ Until You Hear From Me (1977). Ellis Peters’ Black is the Colour of My True Love’s Heart (1967) is set in a weekend school on folk music, while J R L Anderson’s Festival (1979) relates to a pop festival, though admittedly classical music festivals are more often scene of crime, as Clinton-Baddeley, Ellis Peters, Alan Hunter and Mary Peters, among several others, have shown. Church music is still another background, with Edmund Crispin again prominent, also Michael Gilbert with his Close Quarters (1947, set in a (fictitious) cathedral close. Among "concert" settings we have Douglas Clark’s Performance (1985), in which the contralto soloist drops dead at the end of a North Country performance of Handel’s Messiah. And one I like particularly is When the Wind Blows (1949) by Cyril Hare. The murder is of a visiting soloist for a provincial orchestral society, just as she is about to perform Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto. If the reader is to spot the culprit before investigators he or she needs to have a knowledge of the orchestration of Mozart’s symphonies (I remember, when I first read the book, that I had such knowledge but as I thought the author did not, it didn’t help me).

I have mentioned relatively few titles but there are many more relevant ones – altogether I have discovered 188 separate crime novels or stories with significant musical input and they are merely those by British authors and, usually, with a British setting. Several of the authors were themselves musicians. We have already introduced Edmund Crispin and we also can point to Agatha Christie who considered, only to regret, careers as a singer and as a concert pianist – she even composed four songs and piano pieces, some of which achieved publication. Dorothy L Sayers played, though not professionally, violin and saxophone and sang in the Oxford Bach Choir when she was an undergraduate and Freeman Wills Crofts was an accomplished organist. Other crime authors wrote libretti for musical stage works: Conan Doyle – in collaboration with J M Barrie of Peter Pan fame – abridged for the operetta Jane Austen, which was a monumental flop at the Savoy Theatre in 1893 (the music was by Ernest Ford, a pupil of Sullivan); V C Clinton-Baddeley, who did likewise for the opera The What d’Ye Call It, with music by Phyllis Tate; and Edgar Wallace who wrote libretti for the musicals Are You There? (1913), Soldier Boy (1915) and The Yellow Mask (1927) but only the last was successful.

Several crime authors have made their detectives not only music-lovers, of which I quoted examples just now, but also practising musicians, though only rarely do they use their musical expertise in their investigations. Sherlock Holmes played the violin, a Stradivarius he picked up for fifty-five shillings (£2.75), a bargain even in the 1880s; and Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey sang tenor and played the piano, "a musician of some skill and more understanding" whom we see playing, on his baby grand at 110A Picadilly, Bach and Scarlatti – though he admits a harpsichord is better for their music – among more modern composers. Both he and Philip Trent of Trent’s Last Case (1913) married musicians. Wimsey’s Harriet, like her creator, sang in the Oxford Bach Choir, while Trent’s fiancee plays him, in the book, the theme from the finale of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and in the 1952 film of Trent’s Last Case the slow movement of Mozart’s C Minor Piano Concerto.

To balance the several fictional villains there are also practising musicians, like music teacher Miss Gwilt from Wilkie Collins’ Armadale (1866), Count Fosco of Collins’ The Woman in White (1860), who enjoys singing Italian Opera, especially Rossini (we hear of him declaiming Largo Al Factotum to his own concertina accompaniment), John Jasper of Charles Dickens’ Edwin Drood (1870), choirmaster at Cloisterham (really Rochester) Cathedral, Irene Adler, a former prima donna of the Warsaw Opera, "the woman" for Sherlock Holmes, whom she outwits in the short story "A Scandal in Bohemia", Tony Perelli of Edgar Wallace’s On the Spot (1931), set in Chicago’s gangland, the culprit in Margery Allingham’s Dancers in Mourning (1937) who composes musical comedies and concocts nasty murders, and one of the Vicars Choral in Michael Gilbert’s Close Quarters, previously mentioned.

Now for music inspired by crime fiction. Sherlock Holmes will figure considerably but of him more presently. The most popular of all mystery authors is Agatha Christie and inevitably there have been many adaptations (with music) of her books, for small and large screens, the radio and also for the stage as Benjamin Britten composed attractive music for the stage version Love From a Stranger (1936) of the short story "Philomel Cottage". Ron Goodwin wrote music for the four Margaret Rutherford Miss Marple films of the 1960s and for the Alphabet Murders, the film version of Christie’s best detective novel, The ABC Murders (1936), the Italian Nino Rota for Death on the Nile (1938), Malcolm Lockyer for Ten Little Indians (1966) and Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco (also Italian) for And Then There Were None, a 1945 adaptation of the same novel, originally entitled Ten Little Niggers (1939). All these composers are, or were significant names in the musical world. The music for the latter-day Poirot TV adaptation, by Christopher Gunning, captures well the sound of the popular music of the 1930s, Poirot’s heyday, while the opening tune for all the Joan Hickson Miss Marple TV features (the tune is by Alan Blaikley and Ken Howard – I understand one wrote the tune and the other scored it) I have heard played in a live concert by three oboists. But the best known piece inspired by Agatha Christie is the Introduction and Waltz from the film Murder on the Orient Express (1974, book 1934) by Richard Rodney Bennett, excellent both as "train music" and also at painting, with just a shade of oriental colour, the romance of the setting of the murder, one of the most high profile railway trains of all time.

Before I leave Dame Agatha let me recall that Joseph Horovitz wrote music for the TV adaptations of her non-Poirot books Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? (1934) and The Seven Dials Mystery (1929) and Colin Towns, who is keen on jazz but is capable of gentle, non-jazzy scores, did likewise for The Pale Horse, another non-Poirot Christie. Both Horovitz and Towns obliged other crime writers, Horovitz’s title music for the 1980s Edward Petherbridge/Harriet Walter versions of three of Dorothy L Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey novels encapsulating to perfection the 1920s style of popular music, while Towns’ music has been heard in An Unsuitable Job For a Woman, based on PD James’ female detective Cordelia Gray and in the Derek Jacobi versions of Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael investigations in which Towns, probably wisely, makes little attempt to write mock-medieval music. Nigel Hess has composed title music for at least five TV detective series, mostly based on books: Dangerfield, Maigret (Simenon), Campion (Margery Allingham), Wycliffe (W J Burley), and best known of all and recently very popular as a brass band piece, Hetty Wainthropp Investigates. Hess has combined the tunes of all five in a single movement The TV Detectives, for wind band.

For large screen crime adaptations some notable names have been pressed into service from both sides of the Atlantic. Examples are: from America, Victor Young (Raffles , ((E W Horning), film 1939) and Jerry Goldsmith (The List of Adrian Messenger (Philip MacDonald), film 1963)); from Britain, William Alwyn (Green For Danger, by Christianna Brand, film, 1946), Richard Addinsell for A E W Mason’s Tudor Spy Thriller Fire Over England (film 1937, and the music is "mock old"), Anthony Collins for E C Bentley’s Trent’s Last Case (film 1952: the bits Mozart didn’t compose), Malcolm Arnold (The Ringer by Edgar Wallace, film 1952), and from France, Georges Auric for the film of Father Brown (1954), the clerical detective created by G K Chesterton, one of several British films of the period for which Auric wrote music, another being the comedy thriller Lavender Hill Mob. John Barry, English-born but now domiciled in America, wrote music not only for virtually all the James Bond films; but also for The Ipcess File, Len Deighton’s tale of secret service (1965). Sometimes it is not clear who did the music for a particular-film, even a famous one, like the 1935 Robert Donat version of The Thirty Nine Steps (by John Buchan, of course), credited to Hubert Bath, later of Cornish Rhapsody fame, but it is thought that most of the score was composed by Jack Beaver and Charles Williams, best known for Devil’s Galop, the signature of BBC radio’s thriller serial Dick Barton, Special Agent (1960s). The 1961 remake of The Thirty Nine Steps, with Kenneth More as Hannay had music by Clifton Parker; for the 1978 Robert Powell version Ed Welch did the music.

Not many Radio crime adaptations or series had or have had specially written music. Often the title and other cues came from classical sources or from the shelves of the recorded music libraries and, on a few occasions, depending on the popularity of the series, the tune’s name was made. One such example is Vivian Ellis’ railway piece Coronation Scot, used as the signature tune to many, though not all, of the Paul Temple series popular just after the last war. This applied also to TV; Ronald Hanmer’s Changing Moods No 2 became the title music for Dixon of Dock Green. Francis Durbridge, the author of the Paul Temple mysteries, wrote the lyrics and apparently the music also for a stage musical: yet another connection between crime fiction and the musical stage and another is that operatic adaptation of The Lodger by Mrs Belloc Loundes, a thriller based on the Jack the Ripper story, with music by Phyllis Tate.

When all is said and done, the most famous of all detectives is Sherlock Holmes. The number of films about him is legion. These are mainly American and mainly "invented" cases (that is, not adaptations of real Doyle Stories). For those which appeared in the period around World War II, Hollywood called on perhaps its second string composers for the most part, people like Frank Skinner, Cyril Mockridge, Paul Sawtell and Milton Rosen, to provide the incidental music. This group of films included the earliest, and probably still the best, talkie version of The Hound of the Baskervilles (1939); later remakes of The Hound had music by James Bernard, a regular composer for Hammer Films, in 1959 and the entertainer Dudley Moore (1977). Other latter-day Holmes films have often had major composers to write their music. John ("Jock") Addison, English-born, latterly American domiciled, for The Seven Per Cent Solution in 1976, though Stephen Sondheim contributed a rather naughty song to this; John Scott, for A Study in Scarlet (1965); Henry Mancini for Without A Clue (1988), and Miklos Rozsa for The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970). The Most notable TV music for Holmes was by Patrick Gowers, for the long-running Granada series starring Jeremy Brett on Holmes. Some music – that by Scott and by Malcolm Williamson for Channel 4’s Masks of Death – has sought to exploit the fact that Holmes was a violinist.

But Holmesian music does not stop at film adaptations. A musical, Baker Street, premiered on Broadway in 1965, was successful, a British musical Sherlock Holmes with music by Leslie Bricusse (1989) much less so. Nigel Hess’s incidental music for Jeremy Paul’s play The Secret of Sherlock Holmes is attractive. In 1953, a ballet, The Great Detective, with music by Richard Arnell, was produced as Sadler’s Wells. And the composer Carey Blyton wrote music for a pilot Holmes TV cartoon feature which did not get off the ground but he reused some of it in a suite for brass quintet with movements like March, The Game’s Afoot, The Baker Street Irregulars and Moriarty: Hansom Cab Chase.

How can we sum up music and fictional crime? In whatever form, music makes a pleasant and interesting background for a detective story or thriller and by and large – thought there are always exceptions to any general theses – the authors best at describing the music have written the best mysteries. Not often, though, does the music materially affect the detective plot. At times detective stories afford valuable material for the social historian of music, especially those of Dorothy L Sayers which shed interesting light on early 20th century musical institutions, now outdated, such as cinema orchestras, café and hotel orchestras, seaside orchestras or the village concert and also on attitudes to music in the Lord Peter Wimsey era. Finally music inspired by crime writings, whether for films, radio, TV, theatre or whatever, is generally light and if rather ephemeral, usually entertaining. It is perhaps a special footnote to the heritage of 20th century light music.

Philip L Scowcroft

 

 


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