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MUSIC IN ENGLISH DETECTIVE FICTION: A Few Notes
by Philip L. Scowcroft
Music, a social and artistic activity of the first importance, inevitably makes its way, often quite a substantial way, into literature of all kinds. Monographs have been, or could be, written on music in Jane Austen's novels, or Thomas Hardy's, or J. B. Priestley's, or on music in Galsworthy's FORSYTE CHRONICLES, to name a few instances at random. It may, then, be of some interest to recall (and I do not believe it has been done previously at length) some of the musical associations of the vast bulk of British crime fiction.
Arthur Conan Doyle did not create the detective story, even the British detective story - this predated Sherlock Holmes' earliest appearance (1887) by some 35 years (1) - but Holmes' personality and charisma, much more than anything else, brought about its remarkable popularity, a popularity which has scarcely diminished even today. One of Holmes' principal relaxations and certainly the only one mentioned other than perfunctorily, was music. (2) His two main passions in this field were opera and the violin. We hear of him going to hear the de Reszkes in Meyerbeer's Les Huguenots at the end of THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES (Newnes 1902); in "The Adventure of the Red Circle" (3) he attends a Wagner opera at Covent Garden.
Before finally solving the problem of "The Retired Colourman" (4) Holmes goes to the Albert Hall to hear the famous singer "Carina", who may, in reality, have been Anne Louise Cary. He frequently discusses violins - Stradivari and Amati - doubtless with some authority as he owned a Stradivarius, purchased for as little as fifty-five shillings and lovingly cared for. (5) Though he often played it, it is difficult to determine how good a performer he was, as Dr. Watson was no expert.
Watson also described Holmes as a "composer", but he was probably no more than an enthusiastic extemporiser. (6) Holmes went to concerts given by eminent violinists of the day, such as Sarasate, in "The Red Headed League" (7) and Wilma Norman-Neruda, later Lady Hallé, in A STUDY IN SCARLET (8), both Stradivarius players, incidentally.
At one time Holmes had an interest in early music, too, putting together a study of "The Polyphonic Motets of Lassus" (9), said by experts - but were there that many of them in the 1890s? - to be "the last word on the subject" (10).
"The Mazarin Stone" (11) is an early example (written in the 1920s, but set in 1903 or thereabouts) of the use of a gramophone as an alibi; later a commonplace in detective fiction as a murderer's aid, this is used here by Holmes himself to trap the criminal, the record being a violin version of the celebrated Barcarolle from The Tales of Hoffman (12). One of Holmes' clients, piano teacher Violet Smith in "The Solitary Cyclist" (13), and one of his opponents, ex prima donna of the Warsaw Opera. Irene Adler, "the woman", in "A Scandal in Bohemia" (14), were musicians.
One does feel, however, that Holmes did not bring the same intellectual power (pace Lassus and the "polyphonic" motets) to bear on his music as he did on his cases - that he enjoyed Meyerbeer and that his overriding impression of Neruda was a trifle of Chopin in transcription rather than a more serious work suggest that his musical tastes were hardly discriminating. Perhaps this is not unreasonable with a spare-time activity.
The Sherlock Holmes "pastiche", Nicholas Meyer's THE WEST END HORROR (Hodder, 1976) introduces as characters Richard D'Oyly Carte, Arthur Sullivan and W. S. Gilbert. The novel is set in 1896, around the time of the premiere of The Grand Duke, by G. & S. - the Savoy background fully researched. Doyle, incidentally, wrote, with James Barrie, the lyric an operetta Jane Annie at the Savoy (1893), the music of which was by Ernest Ford.
Another Baker Street pastiche, James Miles' short story, "The Worcester Enigma" has Holmes meeting Elgar and offering a solution to the mystery of the Enigma Variations.
One encounters comparatively few musical references in the immediately post-Holmes detective literature. True, the epoch-making novel TRENT'S LAST CASE (Nelson, 1913) by E. C. Bentley makes its heroine an enthusiast amateur musician, and a performance of Tristan and Isolde is the means by which she and Trent resume acquaintance, thus paving the way to the resolution of the mystery, but by and large one has to wait for the practitioners of the so-called "Golden Age" of the detective novel, basically the period between the two world wars (though most such practitioners continued in business long after 1945) for music and crime to go hand in hand.
The most famous of these authors was Dame Agatha Christie (1890-1976) who, in early life, considered becoming either an opera singer or a concert pianist but rejected both; she also composed - songs and a waltz, entitled One Hour With Thee, which was actually published. Surprisingly in view of this, her 80-odd detective books are sparse in musical allusions: a few operatic mentions most notably the short story "Swan Song" (from The LISTERDALE MYSTERY (Collins, 1934) whose ambience is a performance of Puccini's Tosca; the source of two alibis in HERCULE POIROT'S CHRISTMAS (Collins, 1938); the introduction of a steel band as local colour in A CARIBBEAN MYSTERY (Collins, 1964); and the use of nursery songs as book titles. (15)
In THEY DO IT WITH MIRRORS (Collins, 1935) the murder weapon is found in the piano stool on top of the (scarcely used) copies of Shostakovich, Hindemith (two rather unusual composers, anyway, for the domestic grand), Czerny et al. (15A) The murder weapon in "The Bird With the Broken Wing", a short story from THE MYSTERIOUS MR QUIN (Collins, 1930) is a ukulele string; and a flute player appears in DEATH IN THE CLOUDS (Collins, 1935) - could his instrument serve as a vehicle for the means of the murder (a poisoned dart) as well as its musical purpose? (16)
Another "Golden Age" writer, who also died only recently, is Dame Ngaio Marsh. In OVERTURE TO DEATH (Collins, 1939) the murder occurs during the playing of the overture in a village concert; in SINGING IN THE SHROUDS (Collins, 1958) the fact that the psychopath murderer can sing in tune is an important clue - one of the suspects is an expert on Gregorian chant. SWING, BROTHER, SWING (Collins, Collins, 1949) takes us into the world of swing bands. The murder, in a London night club, is of the band's piano accordionist, an unsavoury character. There is an eccentric peer who fancies himself as a drummer ("tympani" is an irritating mis-spelling throughout) - I was surprised at first to read of the band leader (a drug addict) using a baton but this turns out to be a very necessary "prop". Latest of all is PHOTO-FINISH (Collins, 1980), where a temperamental diva is murdered after giving the premiere of a new opera by a young protégé of hers. The setting is a lake island in New Zealand.
The prolific John Dickson Carr (d. 1977) rarely mentions music except as incidental period colour in some of his historical detective stories: thus references to the Merry Widow and Land of Hope and Glory place THE WITCH OF THE LOW-TIDE (Hamish Hamilton, 1961) firmly in the Edwardian era; the rather risqué Alhambra Ballet, locale of the book's penultimate scene, does the same for SCANDAL AT HIGH CHIMNEYS (Hamish Hamilton, 1959), set in the 1860s.
Dorothy L. Sayers (1893-1957) followed Doyle in making her detective, Lord Peter Wimsey, a musician of "some skill and more understanding (17), a pianist this time. Her first novel, WHOSE BODY (Benn, 1923) mentions Wimsey's baby grand on an early page and, soon afterwards, Detective Inspector Parker's opinion that it was a wonderful instrument. Wimsey agrees but avers that "Scarlatti wants a harpsichord. Piano's too modern - all thrills and overtones". (18) A fairly advanced view for 1923.
Sayers' books are very revelatory of social attitudes in the twenties and thirties and her musical references are no exception. In STRONG POISON (Gollancz, 1930) there is an entertaining send-up of contemporary music. Lord Peter and a friend attend a private musical gathering in bohemian London where they hear, on the piano (with violin obbligato), a performance of Stanislas's tone poem on Piccadilly Tube Station (shades of Mossolov's The Iron Foundry). This does not satisfy one guest who contemptuously dismisses it as "Bourgeois music. Programme music. Pretty! You should hear Vrilovitch's Ecstasy on the Letter Z. That is pure vibration with no antiquated pattern in it. Stanislas - he thinks much of himself but it is as old as the hills - you can sense the resolution at the back of all his discords. Mere harmony in camouflage. Nothing in it. But he takes them all in because he has red hair and reveals his bony structure". The speaker is perhaps a Varèse disciple; Wimsey suggests that to "express the infinite complexity of modern emotion, you need a scale of 32 notes to the octave" (19) (cf. Aloys Haba and his microtones) An earlier book, CLOUDS OF WITNESS (Benn, 1926) includes a scene at "Robert Snoates" reciting his own verse to the tom-tom and penny whistle - an irreverent allusion to Façade, maybe?
STRONG POISON also mentions those (now forgotten) "third-rate musicians in cinemas playing the most ghastly tripe, sandwiched in with snacks of Mendelssohn and torn-off gobbets of the 'Unfinished"' (20) musicians, not all third-rate incidentally, made redundant by the advent of talking films and cinema organs.
Two other musical phenomena common in the 1930s, but rarely ever encountered nowadays, are mentioned in HAVE HIS CARCASE (Gollancz 1932): a seaside orchestra (which one of the suspects leads another and another seeks to establish an alibi by means of one of its concerts, commencing at 10.30 a.m. and finishing with the Eroica Symphony, a heavy work so early in the day but apparently substituted for the Pastoral at the last minute; (21) and the two cafe orchestras, one male, one female, entertaining diners at the Corner House. (22)
Another more permanent musical institution is referred to in BUSMAN'S HONEYMOON (Gollancz, 1937) - the village concert , featuring folk songs and sea shanties from the church choir - evidently a fairly useful one as they have progressed to Stanford and, as a Harvest festival anthem, the Hallelujah Chorus - and J. W. Elliot's once-popular ballad, Hybrias the Cretan, to be sung by the victim himself. (23) In GAUDY NIGHT, (Gollancz, 1935) Miss Sayers recalls her own singing days as an undergraduate in Hugh Allen's Oxford Bach Choir by having Harriet Vane, her projection of herself into the Wimsey novels mention her past membership. (24) In the final chapter Wimsey and Harriet attend a Balliol Concert - yet another institution of those days - and hear Bach's Concerto for Two Violins; rather earlier (25) they while the time away in an antique shop singing Elizabethan songs. (26)
Another "Golden Age" writer, A.E.W. Mason (1865-1948), who in younger days had had professional acting experience, introduces opera and operetta into a few of his extremely well-written detective thrillers. In THE SAPPHIRE (Hodder, 1933) one of the main female characters successfully steps up from the chorus to take the title role in a new operetta, Dido (an obviously Offenbachian work and doubtless a reference to Helen, C. B. Cochran's actual re-staging of Offenbach's La Belle Hélène at the Adelphi in 1932, with music arranged by Erich Korngold and English lyrics by A. P. Herbert). The aristocratic heroine of NO OTHER TIGER (Hodder, 1927) is also cast for an operetta lead though one fancies that this thriller's stirring dénouement and its aftermath prevent her fulfilling it. The heroine of the slightly later THEY WOULDN'T BE CHESSMEN (Hodder, 1935) is a young English opera singer resting her voice - in the course of the novel she nearly loses her life as well as her voice but both are happily (or more or less happily) restored at the end.
Dilwyn Rees' THE CAMBRIDGE MURDERS (Gollancz, 1945) features a college Organist, said to be one of the finest in England, putting Rees' fictitious Fisher College on a par with the real King's College, a Detective Inspector who enjoys music of the Bach and pre-Bach eras and an undergraduate bearing the name of the Elizabethan virginalist Giles Farnaby. Rees was the celebrated archaeologist Glyn Daniel. (27)
None of these novels has a specifically musical ambience One which has, and still a book to be re-read with the greatest pleasure, is Cyril Hare's WHEN THE WIND BLOWS (Faber, 1949) whose provincial amateur orchestral society is a brilliantly convincing setting, with believable, three-dimensional characters, several of them musicians, the orchestra's conductor, short-sighted but with razor-sharp hearing, being especially memorable. The victim is the visiting soloist, a world-famous violinist; if the reader is to spot the villain before the police, who are aided by the society's Treasurer, an elderly barrister with little interest in music but whose wife is a member of the orchestra - still is - we are told in a later book THAT YEW TREE'S SHADE (Faber, 1954) - then a detailed knowledge of the orchestration of Mozart's symphonies is essential. Hare, a County Court judge in his non-literary life, never repeated this musical excursion, although there are references to church and other music in THAT YEW TREE'S SHADE and his best novel TRAGEDY AT LAW (Faber, 1942) turns on a running down case where the injured party suffers the apparently mild disability of a crushed finger - but he is a concert pianist'
"Michael Gilbert", another lawyer-writer, set his CLOSE QUARTERS (Hodder, 1947) in a cathedral close - choir and organist play their parts in the plot and regrettably one of the Vicars-Choral is the murderer. In Gilbert's later SMALLBONE DECEASED (Hodder, 1950), one of the detectives (and we ourselves, surely) decide a suspect cannot be guilty after appreciating his fine singing of I Would Beside my Lord from Bach's St. Matthew Passion. Gilbert's THE BLACK SERAPHIM (Hodder 1983) returns to the cathedral choir/close setting of CLOSE QUARTERS. George A Birmingham's THE HYMN TUNE MYSTERY (1931) also has an English cathedral setting, the murdered man being the (alcoholic) Organist, found dead in his own organ loft.
The relatively small, but outstandingly entertaining output of "Edmund Crispin" understandably has a musical flavour, for Crispin's real name was Bruce Montgomery; he was Organist of St. John's College Oxford 1940-3 and composer of choral works long and short, orchestral pieces, an Oxford Requiem and Shakespearean songs. He wrote for films too and his novel FREQUENT HEARSES (Gollancz, 1950) is set in a film studio and brings in film music as background colour. "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" (28) "Napier" is delighted to be told his latest film score is "beautiful", though he says, "Don't judge me by this stuff". There are mentions of real composers, too: Geoffrey Bush (who co-operated with Crispin in the leg-pulling short-short crime story 'Who Killed Baker?") (29) and Ireland, presumably John Ireland (1879-1962), whose film score The Overlanders was such a success. Crispin's detective, Gervase Fen, is an Oxford don and his first novel, THE CASE OF THE GILDED FLY (Gollancz, 1944) is set in Fen's college. The first murder involves a woman being shot from outside through a room in which two men are listening to a radio concert comprising The Mastersingers overture and Ein Heldenleben ("a rich Teutonic concoction", as Fen remarks and a good cover for the noise made by a silenced pistol). Later, the college Organist has his throat cut in his own organ loft during evensong but he survives long enough to indicate the murderer's name by pulling out the appropriate stops; a whimsical touch The evening service just sung is Dyson in D, characterised by Fen as "theatrical but nice"; (30) an air-raid siren is "a dismal portamento progression of minor thirds". (31) The background of SWAN SONG (Gollancz, 1947) is a production of The Mastersingers in Oxford, the climax coming when an attempt is made to murder the Walther during his Prize Song! A deliciously absentminded opera composer affords light relief during the story. The characters of the opera company are well imagined, and are more convincing indeed than the mystery itself. THE MOVING TOYSHOP (Gollancz, 1946), set in Oxford, is basically a giddy chase of the crooks through the streets and colleges, a richly humorous episode being a rehearsal of Brahms' German Requiem by the "Oxford University Handel Society" (Hugh Allen's Bach Choir again?) in the Sheldonian. BURIED FOR PLEASURE (Gollancz) introduces a psychiatrist who enjoys ballads; cathedral music looms heavily in HOLY DISORDERS (Gollancz, 1945). The 32' pedal tuba of a (fictitious) West Country cathedral organ has a part to play in one murder - the other, earlier, murder is of the Organist himself but, as Fen comments, "the music wasn't as bad as all that" (32) The "viewpoint" character is a composer and stand-in cathedral Organist who attempts, unsuccessfully, to catch out one of the "baddies", whose "cover" is an interest in cathedral music, by inviting his opinion on mythical piece like Stanford in E Flat and Byrd's In Exitu Israel. Crispin's short story "Lacrimae Rerum" (33) tells of the murder of a composer using an ingenious alibi based on a broadcast concert. But hitches occur even on the BBC.
It is no accident that "musical" detective stories seem to increase in number the nearer we get to the present time. Detective fiction is better written and more readable these days, taking the genre as a whole and a plausible, carefully researched background is more of a necessity in the old days when the "whodunit" puzzle was everything. Dan Billany's THE OPERA HOUSE MURDERS (Faber, 1940) has plenty of action and blood (8 corpses!). Hidden treasure of £100,000 is the stake; the climax takes place in an opera house and one of the main characters is a leading operatic soprano. The narrator/hero is something of a crook, though he ends happily surprisingly as he is fearfully bashed many times in the course of the plot. Operatic references are perfunctory, however.
The background is much less idiomatically done in Crispin's SWAN SONG, already discussed, and in Fletcher's DON'T WHISTLE MACBETH (Macmillan, 1976), set in a Glyndebourne-type country opera house. The opera being performed is Don Giovanni. The chapter headings are titles of arias therefrom. The murder occurs at the dress rehearsal of the final scene. There are some bewildering mistaken identities, the "wrong" person being killed, but relatively little detail. The Macbeth of the title refers of course to Verdi's opera, not Shakespeare's play.
The murderous climax of Gladys Mitchell's FAULT IN THE STRUCTURE (Michael Joseph, 1977) comes at the end of an amateur production of The Beggar's Opera; disappointing as a mystery, this tale has a brilliant scene in which the amateurs squabble in committee over the production and its casting. The same writer's earlier DEATH AT THE OPERA (Grayson Grayson, 1934) is also investigated by the hideous but highly intelligent Mrs. Beatrice Bradley. Set against a school production of The Mikado, victim being the Katisha; the motive (that the murderer thought the part would be badly played) seems ludicrously inadequate. (34)
Especially enjoyable is DEATH ON THE HIGH Cs (Collins, 1977) by John Barnard, featuring a small provincial company playing in Manchester. The victim is a blowsy, sexy Australian contralto whose "recent Carmen fresh in everyone's mind. Brazen, blatant, torrid and vulgar, it had some critics reaching for their superlatives and others simply reaching. The rest of the company - the smooth Musical Director, the second-rate producer, the amiable coloured tenor lead, the brilliant young soprano, the visiting Italian diva - are excellent characterisations; the opera background is knowledgeably, wittily, rather irreverently described. The investigating Detective Superintendent is an opera buff. The mystery is good, with simple and ingenious misdirection of the reader.
The same author's DEATH AND THE PRINCESS (Collins, 1982) includes a description of a State Visit to Covent Garden where the opera being staged is Meyerbeer's L'Africaine "one aria surrounded by four acts of padding and lots of pretty scenery the story made The Pirates of Penzance look like a masterpiece of realistic theatre. The music had stirring bits, jolly bits and totally ludicrous bits".
FUNERAL MARCH FOR SIEGFRIED (Elek, 1979) is yet another operatic whodunit, Audrey Williamson's first novel. The opera is (obviously) Götterdämmerung, the company German, the weapon curare, the arrow poison of the South American Indians. Detective Superintendent York, another opera buff (a lot of police opera fans about, seemingly) (34A) digs up roots in Nazi Germany - an ingenious book, but the characterisation lacks variety. In Reginald Hill's thriller TRAITOR'S BLOOD (Collins, 1984) the chase momentarily visits a performance of Aida at Rome's open-air opera house.
Kenneth O'Hara's THE SEARCHES OF THE DEAD (Gollancz, 1980) is set in Wales against the background of a musical show using Purcell's music. We have mentioned policemen as music lovers. L. A. G. Strong's Chief Inspector Ellis McKay of Scotland Yard is a composer; in WHICH I NEVER (Collins, 1950) his musical talents are put to use - the storyline is scatty but there is a splendidly observed rehearsal for a village concert, in which McKay is accompanist and talent spotter, and the concert itself is amusing, too.
Mary Kelly's first series detective, Inspector Brett Nightingale of Scotland Yard, is married to an opera singer who usually appears abroad - a nice reversal of the usual situation - as here the policeman is the grass widower instead of his wife being a "police widow". He himself, we learn, is a capable amateur involved with a suburban opera society. Her first novel, A COLD COMING (Secker and Warburg, 1956) features the Nightingales and two undergraduates, victims of drug smuggling, kidnapping and attempted murder, and later assistants to the police in tracking down the culprits. For them, too, music is, significantly, an overpowering interest and solace. The climax occurs at and around Covent Garden Opera House, when the vegetable market was still there. The sequel, DEAD MAN'S RIDDLE (Secker and Warburg, 1957), set in Edinburgh against the background of the University, finds Christina Nightingale singing in Britain for once - a concert and a recital - and, later, abducted by the murderer. The clue to a coded letter leading to the truth comes from a song in Die Winterreise.
Other stories with an operatic flavour (35) apart from Ellis Peter's FUNERAL OF FIGARO (Collins, 1962) (36), DEATH OF A FAT GOD (Collins, 1963) by H. R. F. Keating and Gerald Sinstadt's THE FIDELIO SCORE (Long, 1965?), an espionage novel, are those by the late V. C. Clinton-Baddeley, whose series detective is Dr. R. V. Davie, an amiable Cambridge don with a keen and knowledgeable love of opera. In MY FOE OUTSTRETCH'D BENEATH THE TREE (Gollancz, 1968), chapter two follows him to a Covent Garden production of Turandot. Opera is not just verbal "wallpaper", for this novel is concerned with dope running, the dope being passed on at operatic performances - there is an ingenious (musical) communications system. The dénouement takes place at one of those London suburban performances of rare operas - though Manon Lescaut is perhaps not so much of a rarity - by small companies in inadequate halls: a brilliantly observed piece of description.
ONLY A MATTER OF TIME (Gollancz, 1969) is set in a small country town holding its annual summer music festival, which is so delightfully portrayed one longs to be there! Dr. Davie hears a string quartet, the first modern performance of John Christopher Smith, junior's opera The Fairies (37) (the book regrettably muddles the composer with his father) and the final concert, an al fresco madrigal evening. He even enjoys an evening of poetry and jazz, complete with four letter words, but detective work (or does it?) keeps him from a Webern concert. Matters are brought to a satisfactory conclusion just as the festival itself concludes.
There is no opera in NO CASE FOR THE POLICE (Gollancz, 1970) but the pleasures of domestic music-making are recalled (38). The other Dr. Davie novels in an all-too-short canon are DEATH'S BRIGHT DART (Gollancz, 1967) and TO STUDY A LONG SILENCE (Gollancz, 1972) (38A). In H C Bailey's RAGGED FORTUNE short story "The Germany Song", Mignon's aria from Thomas opera Mignon is the key to a code message and in Freeman Wills Croft's first novel THE CASK, (Collins, 1920) our alibi is established with the help of the performances of Berlioz's opera in Brussels. Antonia Fraser's YOUR ROYAL HOSTAGE (Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1987) has a royal princess kidnapped by animal rights protesters at a Royal Gala performance of Verdi's Otello at Covent Garden.
Festivals, like opera, are popular backgrounds to crime. We may mention briefly Ralph Stephenson's FESTIVAL DEATH (Gifford, 1966) - the festival is Bath - and the same writer's SPIES IN CONCERT (Gifford, 1965) is also a spy thriller-with-music - and Marguerite Stand's DEATH CAME IN LUCERNE (Hale, 1966). THE HORN OF ROLAND (Macmillan, 1974) by Ellis Peters is set in a festival in a small Tyrolean lakeside town. The title is that of a new composition for soloists, horn and orchestra by composer-conductor Lucas Corinth, who has World War II associations with the region. This is a romantic thriller rather than a detective story, the little detection necessary being carried out by the horn soloist, a young Englishman, but the festival atmosphere, musical detail and scenery are equally well drawn. The festival in Alan Hunter's GENTLY INSTRUMENTAL (Cassell, 1977) is in a seaside town during a heatwave. A composer (homosexual) of national reputation has written a Clarinet Quintet for the festival. The clarinettist (also homosexual) is found dead after an altercation at rehearsal. The Maigret-like Chief Superintendent Gently investigates or, rather, hangs about, and the killer (not, luckily for the première, a musician) eventually confesses. The musical background is but lightly sketched in; oddly for such an important festival premiere the string players all seem to be local amateurs! Simon Troy's SWIFT TO ITS CLOSE (Gollancz, 1969) is a murder mystery set in a Welsh festival of music.
Nor should we overlook pop "festivals". FESTIVAL! (Collins, 1976) by Michael Butterworth is a sparklingly written, ironical effort, telling of international skulduggery and attempted mass-murder of the pop fans with stolen cholera germs. The more recent FESTIVAL by J. R. L. Anderson (Gollancz, 1979) is only partly set in the pop festival, despite its title. Pop music is superficially but sympathetically described - a murder takes place at the festival and suspicion falls on the members of one of the groups playing there. A stirring, finely told yarn, whose other elements include the kidnapping of a chief constable's infant daughter, small boat sailing and several bent policemen.
Not only classical music, indeed, invades detective fiction. We have noted Ngaio Marsh's SWING, BROTHER, SWING; Terry Rieman's VAMP UNTIL READY (Gollancz, 1951) and Ray Sonin's THE DANCE BAND MYSTERY (Quality Press, 1940) are about old-style dance bands. Christopher Bush, THE CASE OF THE EXTRA MAN (Macdonald, 1956), L. Grex (Leonard Gribble), CROONER'S SWAN SONG (Hutchinson, 1935), Barbara Worsley Gough, LANTERN HILL (Michael Joseph, 1957) and A. E. Jones, IT MAKES YOU THINK (John Long, 1958) all mention crooners.
Better than any of these for background is DO NOTHIN' TILL YOU HEAR FROM ME by John Wainwright (Macmillan, 1977). The narrator, "Lucky" Luckhurst, an abrasive character who tells the story (rather wearingly) in slightly outdated American slang, has his own ten-piece jazz band in which he plays double bass and dreams of setting up a "big band" à la Glenn Miller. He is an enthusiast, and there is no enthusiast like a jazz enthusiast - we hear it all in the course of the book, which has an authentic feel both on the jazz side and the police side. (There is another police music lover - a jazz fan, naturally, and he even plays the clarinet himself). The mystery, which at times seems like a sub-plot, so all-pervading is the jazz talk, is good too.
The same author's WALTHER P.38 (Macmillan, 1976) features a pop group, The Whirlybirds, described with biting sarcasm by "Lucky" Luckhurst who at that time was unlucky enough to be bass guitar in the group. There is more jazz in James Grant's DON'T SHOOT THE PIANIST (Piatkus, 1980). The hero is a jazz band leader and proprietor of a sleazy Battersea club who promotes a prestige jazz festival with financial aid from the local villains counting on using the decibels to drown the noise of explosions breaking open nearby bank vaults. Their scheme fails (though the festival is a roaring success) - I found this stirringly told, slightly zany story enjoyable, but there are rather more four letter words than are absolutely necessary. John Hilton Buxton's PASSION IN THE PEAK (Collins, 1985) has as its setting the preparations for an updated Oberammergau Passion Play in a Derbyshire village. The music in this is eclectic, but mainly pop and the victim is a superannuated pop singer set tot take the part of Christ.
Ellis Peters, three of whose books we have already discussed, set her BLACK IS THE COLOUR OF MY TRUE LOVE'S HEART (Collins, 1967) in a week-end school on folk music; the same writer's THE PIPER ON THE MOUNTAIN (Collins, 1966) introduces that stirring Slovakian folk instrument, the fujara. Simon Brett's THE DEAD SIDE OF THE MIKE (Gollancz, 1980) has the spoken introductions (and the musical items themselves) to a BBC disc jockey programme as an ingenious "treasure hunt" type lure to one of the victims. The murder motive is the need to keep secret a profitable traffic in pirated tapes of light music. Brett's other books introduce the lighter music forms as background to the light entertainment world they inhabit.
Beverley Nichols' DEATH TO SLOW MUSIC (W.H. Allen, 1956) happens in a seaside resort during the production of a new musical written by a character bearing a more than passing resemblance to Noel Coward. Despite its embracing double murder, drug running and musical plagiarism (of Delius, of all people!) the story moves rather slowly. And there is Anthony Gilbert's THE MUSICAL COMEDY CRIME (Collins, 1933). Josephine Bell's short story "The Carol Singers" is an example of the criminal opportunities afforded by a common, seasonal musical activity. (39)
Mostly, however, the music is classical. Titles which one can only mention (as they are out of print!) are E.C.R. Lorac, THE ORGAN SPEAKS (Sampson Low, 1935) where an organist is murdered in a "music pavillion" in Regent's Park, Charles Franklin, FACE THE MUSIC (Robert Hale, 1957), Amelia Reynolds Long, SYMPHONY IN MURDER (Quality Press, 1953), Margaret Newman, MURDER TO MUSIC (John Long, 1959), Peter Chester, KILLING COMES EASY (Herbert Jenkins, 1958), Thomas Arthur Plummer, THE WESTLADE MURDERS (Stanley Paul, 1953), Sidney Hobson Courtier, THE CORPSE WON'T SING (Hammond, 1964), Simon Troy, SWIFT TO ITS CLOSE (Gollancz, 1969) Diana Ramsey, LITTLE MURDER MUSIC (Collins, 1972) and Josephine Bell THE SUMMER SCHOOL MYSTERY (Methuen, 1950). with its school orchestra background. In H C Bailey's Reggie Fortune short story 'The German Song' Mignon's song from Ambroise Thomas's opera is an important clue. Josephine Bell also wrote a short story 'The Case of the Murdered Cellist'.
Bruce Hamilton's TOO MUCH OF WATER (Crescent Press, 1958) set on a Barbados bound cruise ship, includes a middle aged conductor, Edgar Cantrell. a countertenor and a young piano teacher. Music plays an important part in the plot. And there is also Michael Kenyon THE ELGAR VARIATIONS (Putnam, 1981) while John Buxton Hilton's THE QUIET STRANGER (Collins, 1985) set in 1872 has a mention of the spa orchestra at Buxton in Derbyshire.
We come then to J J Marric - a pen name of John Creasey. There are musical references in Marric's Gideon (of Scotland Yard) series as Gideon's youngest daughter is a professional concert pianist but the perfunctory nature of these indicates that Marric had no profound interest in classical music.
P. D. James' DEATH OF AN EXPERT WITNESS (Faber, 1977) set in the Fens, introduces a village concert (a source of alibis) - many of the characters seem to be fond of music. H. R. F. Keating's amusing short story "Mrs. Craggs and the Living Dead" (WINTERS CRIMES 13, Macmillan, 1981) deals with a proposed newspaper obituary notice for a munificent patron of the opera.
There are some others. First, Joan Aiken, LAST MOVEMENT (Gollancz, 1977), set in a sanatorium-cum-music centre on a Greek island. Murder happens, but it is largely incidental; one does recall, though, the astonishingly catholic selection of music said to be performed in the centre - Franz Schmidt's Piano Quintet in G, Peter and the Wolf, Samuel Barber's mini-opera A Hand of Bridge, a Mozart wind octet, a Respighi song, Haydn baryton trios, Schubert's Magic Harp overture (rather preciously not styled Rosamunde) and Les Mystères d'Elsinore, a (fictitious) opera by an 85 year old composer resident in the sanatorium. Second, Maurice Culpan's THE VASILIKO AFFAIR (Collins, 1968) includes among its dramatis personae a mentally unbalanced mid-European concert pianist (the Vasiliko of the title), a sympathetic, if rather stiff, concert impresario, an unbelievably smug music critic and a young, immature schoolteacher/composer. At the centre of things (which include two murders) is the manuscript of a recently rediscovered "piano" (sic) concerto in A by Bach (not the well-known one in that key). This presents a very jaundiced view of musical and journalistic circles, though there is one good scene in which an East German conductor directs a rehearsal of Schoenberg's Erwartung. Third, Jennifer Bland's DEATH IN WAITING (Arthur Barker, 1975): the narrator/heroine is a (not over-successful) young concert pianist who during the course of the book takes a job as music organiser for a Scottish region. The story at first raises supernatural fears, which dissolve when the murderers, two of them with four killings between them, are unmasked. Mark Hebden's DEATH SET TO MUSIC (Hamish Hamilton, 1979) is not a 'musical 'novel despite its title, but the victim, an opera maniac, meets her doom while the stereo plays Rigoletto. It is set in Dijon (France); Inspector Pel, hypochondriacal and ill-tempered, but shrewd and human enough, investigates quite entertainingly. In Ivor Baker's DEATH AND VARIATIONS (Hale, 1977) the victim also dies, by gunshot, while listening to Elgar's Enigma Variations - what is the significance of the subsequent substitution of a Mahler symphony on the record player? PARTING BREATH (Collins, 1977) by Catherine Aird, murder in a University quadrangle takes place to the background of the weekly rehearsal of the University's Madrigal and Glee Club which includes, as the author says, with possibly unconscious humour, "not only singers but musicians" (chap. 7). The imperfectly described instruments do not however seem very suitable for accompanying Elizabethan ayres or madrigals. Edwin Leather's THE MOZART SCORE (Macmillan, 1979) is a lively, quick moving tale with Israelis, Palestinian terrorists and others, set in Vienna and the then Jugoslavia. The hero, a British art dealer, is a Mozart enthusiast. The Mozart "score", a supposedly original manuscript, is used as a decoy in the story. The author should have known that Mozart composed no Concerto in B Flat Minor and no Etudes. In John Bedford's THE NEMESIS CONCERTO (Robert Hale, 1982) a killer of evil persons who have escaped legal retribution leaves musical clues at each murder. He calls himself Lohengrin but there is no Wagner in the story. The Scotland Yard detective is a music lover but even the (rather fantastic) ending is always a beat behind. The "concerto" is Brahms' 2nd for piano - Lohengrin turns out to be a famous pianist. Writing and plot no more than beta minus.
In PERFORMANCE by Douglas Clark (Gollancz, 1985) the contralto soloist in a North Country Messiah drops dead at the end of the oratorio. Why? And has it any connection with the death of eleven other ladies during the previous year? Although no decent choral society would entertain a conductor as wet as this one the atmosphere of the performance is nicely conveyed; a blind piano tuner - though who uses a piano for Messiah performances these days? - is an important witness. An ingenious mystery, like all of Douglas Clark's.
How can we draw together the threads of this rather random survey? Music, like every important human activity, is bound to figure in fiction to some degree and it no doubt does so in crime or detective fiction quite as much as in other types of novels, relatively speaking. Many of the best detective stories are notable for their well-imagined settings and musical ones - an orchestral society (WHEN THE WIND BLOWS), a festival (ONLY A MATTER OF TIME) or, especially, an opera company (several titles) - can be ingenious, fresh and entertaining. A few detectives, notably Sherlock Holmes and Lord Peter Wimsey, are musicians themselves, though this does not make these two, at any rate, better detectives, for they do not, so far as we are told, have any opportunities to use their musical expertise in their cases. Some detective novelists obviously love music and one - "Edmund Crispin" - was a professional musician; his musical allusions, light-hearted though they often are, are usually authoritative. The work of Dorothy L. Sayers, though none of her novels is a "musical" one, is of interest to the social (and musical) historian for its reminders of half-forgotten attitudes and institutions and the books we have mentioned by Cyril Hare, Clinton-Baddeley and probably one or two others may be of similar value in the future. Some authors imagine musical backgrounds better than others - usually (though not quite always) these are also the ones who write the best and who devise the most convincing mysteries. But most crime fiction aims purely to entertain and the music therein, when it does occur, it is mostly subordinate to this general aim.
© Philip L Scowcroft
1. Remember Dickens' EDWIN DROOD (1870), whose villain (possibly hero - who knows?) Jasper is a music teacher and "Cloisterham" Cathedral choirmaster. Remember also Wilkie Collins' earlier THE WOMAN IN WHITE (1860) and its villain Count Fosco, connoisseur of the operas of Rossini and Donizetti (the heroine of the same book, Laura Fairlie, enjoys Mozart - nothing should be read into their respective musical tastes though!).
2. The fullest treatment of the subject is Guy Warrack, SHERLOCK HOLMES AND MUSIC (Faber, 1947).
3. From HIS LAST BOW (Murray, 1917).
4. From THE CASE BOOK OF SHERLOCK HOLMES (Murray, 1927).
5. He actually, we are told, kept it in its case - unlike his tobacco which resided in a Persian slipper, or his unanswered correspondence nailed to the mantelpiece with a jack-knife. Judging from Doyle's original rough notes he intended to make Holmes a collector of rare violins
6. See Warrack, op. cit. p.29. Indeed to judge from A STUDY IN SCARLET (Ward Lock 1888) chapter 2, Holmes perhaps preferred extemporisation or musical doodling, though to appease Watson he played Mendelssohn lieder and other favourite airs.
7. From THE ADVENTURES OF SHERLOCK HOLMES (Newnes, 1982). The recital was at the old St James's Hall; Holmes' behaviour, "gently waving his long thin fingers in time to the music" can hardly have helped those in neighbouring seats to concentrate on the music.
8. Chapter 4, Watson, who admittedly did not attend the concert, seemed to think 'Norman Neruda' was a man!
9. In "The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans" from HIS LAST BOW.
10. Warrack, op cit doubts the 'existence' of such a monograph; for contrary views see Trevor H Hall, SHERLOCK HOLMES (Duckworth, 1969) pp. 86-92, Michael Harrison, IN THE FOOTSTEPS OF SHERLOCK HOLMES (David and Charles, rev, ed 1971) pp. 237-257 and S C Roberts, HOLMES AND WATSON: A MISCELLANY (Oxford, 1953) pp. 45-50 (a review of Warrack's book), especially pp. 45-46.
11. From THE CASE BOOK OF SHERLOCK HOLMES.
12. Warrack op. cit. pp.11-12 discusses some interesting problems arising out of this; but see Roberts loc. cit. pp.46-48.
13. From THE RETURN OF SHERLOCK HOLMES (Newnes, 1905).
14. From THE ADVENTURES OF SHERLOCK HOLMES. Irene Adler was described (by Watson, an unreliable witness) as a prima donna and a contralto - but there are very few major operatic contralto roles.
15. On the latter, see G. C. Ramsey, MISTRESS OF MYSTERY (Collins,1968), especially Appendix G which prints the tunes of the songs.
15A. The Shostakovich may be the Preludes Op. 34, the Hindemith Ludus Tonalis. Also in the stool was the ballad I know a lovely garden by Guy d'Hardelot (Helen Guy), composer of Because.
16. For a fuller account see William Weaver, "Music and Mystery", article in H. R. F. Keating (ed), AGATHA CHRISTIE: FIRST LADY OF CRIME (Weidenfeld, 1977), pp. 185-92.
17. CLOUDS OF WITNESS (Benn, 1926), Chapter IV.
18. Chapter 3. He expresses a similar view in STRONG POISON (Gollancz, 1930), Chap. XIII , before playing Bach's Italian Concerto.
19. Chapter VIII.
20 Chapter XIII
21 Chapter XX
22 Chapter XXX
23 Chapter 5
24 Chapter 3
25 Chapter 19
26 For a fuller survey of music in Sayers' novels, see my SIDELIGHTS ON SAYERS (Dorothy L. Sayers Historical and Literary Society, 1981) pp 1-4.
27 Chapter 13
28 Chapter 4 The reverse is true of another film composer, Broderick Thouless of Crispin's The glimpses of the Moon (Gollancz 1977)
29 Reprinted in FEN COUNTRY (Gollancz, 1979).
30 Chapter 8. In HOLY DISORDERS (Gollancz, 1946) Fen dubs the same Service "a battle of religion and romance".
31 Also Chapter 8
32 Chapter 1.
33 From BEWARE OF THE TRAINS (Gollancz, 1953).
34 p. 9.
34A Colin Dexter's Inspector Morse is an inveterate Wagner fan.
35 Ballet is featured in Caryll Brahms and S. J. Simon's minor classic, A BULLET IN THE BALLET (Michael Joseph, 1937) and "Roger Bax", CAME THE DAWN (Hutchinson, 1949).
36 Ellis Peter's RAINBOW'S END (Macmillan, 1978) has a rich business tycoon settle in the Welsh Marshes and "take over" everything in sight, including the post of local church organist, and inflicts a whole lot of 20th Century church and organ music on choir and congregation. This is not, however, the motive for his murder.
37 It has not in reality been staged this century yet, alas!
38 pp. 68-69
38A It is interesting that Clinton-Baddeley furnished the libretto of an opera himself. The What d'Ye Call It (1966) by Phyllis Tate whose operatic output included The Lodger (1960) based on Mrs Belloc Lowndes' famous thriller novel which itself derives from Jack the Ripper.
39 Reprinted in JOHN CREASEY'S CRIME COLLECTION 1979 (Gollancz, 1979), , pp. 9-42.
40 The writer gratefully acknowledges the patient assistance of the staff of Doncaster Borough Library Service in compiling this paper.
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