The Literary Beat of Jazz in the Crang Mysteries

[originally published 5 April 2016 on Dundurn.com blog]

The ultimate giveaway came when Robert B. Parker began running an author’s photo on his book jackets showing him in poses with his dog. For years, and over the course of a dozen or more novels in Parker’s compelling series featuring the Boston private eye Spenser, I had figured that Parker, in shaping Spenser’s personality and back story, had borrowed elements from his own life and grafted them on to his fictional guy Spenser. Parker had fought in the Korean War; so did Spenser. Parker loved boxing; Spenser was a boxer in his youth who once stepped into the ring with the one-time heavyweight champ Jersey Joe Walcott. In music, Parker favoured lyric jazz musicians like the trumpeters Bobby Hackett and Ruby Braff; Spenser listened to the same guys. And when it came to pet animals, Parker owned this big old mutt on the jackets, a dog whose name we never learned; Spenser and his girlfriend Susan Silverman, meanwhile, were the adoring “parents” of a dog named Pearl (actually two dogs with the same name, the second succeeding the first on the latter’s death) who was omnipresent in every Spenser novel.

The significance of all of this, when I came to write my own crime novels, was the lesson from Parker that, in developing the central character in a crime series, there’s nothing wrong, and a lot that can be right, in raiding one’s own autobiography. So, for my guy Crang, the smartass Toronto criminal lawyer at the centre of my series, I bestowed on him my drinking custom (vodka martini, straight up with a twist, made with Wyborowa Polish vodka), my rooting interest in sports (the San Antonio Spurs of the NBA) and, most of all, my passions in music (jazz, with the emphasis on the players who flourished on records roughly from the tenor saxophonist Lester Young’s arrival on the scene in 1935 to the death of the pianist Bill Evans in September 1980).

The music is crucial for a variety of reasons. Major among them is that I feel comfortable writing about jazz. As a journalist, I wrote magazine profiles of the greats among Canadian jazz musicians, and for a big chunk of the 1970s, I served as the Globe and Mail’s jazz reviewer. When I began the Crang series, it was only natural to bring along my jazz obsession. It added to the fun that I put titles on the novels that originated in tunes written by notable jazz musicians. Thus, Straight No Chaser came from the pianist Thelonious Monk’s composition. Take Five first appeared as a title on a melody by the alto saxophonist Paul Desmond, and Blood Count emerged originally on a song by Billy Strayhorn, Duke Ellington’s right hand man in composing and arranging.

In using jazz as a character device—and even as a plot device as I did in StraightNo Chaser, a book in which a Toronto tenor saxophonist is Crang’s client in a case of murder—it’s essential not to overplay the jazz content. Almost certainly, the majority of readers don’t share my love of the music. They would no doubt zone out if I moved into anything too technical or overly rhapsodic in jazz references. The main business of a murder story is to focus on the murder and its solving. Jazz is just an element that tags along as part of the package to demonstrate what an artistically sensitive fellow my guy Crang really is.

Probably the best model for jazz references in crime novels is provided by the nonpareil among writers of police procedurals, Michael Connelly, with his series featuring the LAPD detective Harry Bosch. From the first Bosch books in the early 1990s, Connelly makes it clear that he knows his way around jazz and that Bosch has the same musical taste. The specific musician Connelly zeroes in on is the late Art Pepper, an alto saxophonist who was emotionally powerful in his music and led a deeply troubled personal existence. In the books, Connelly tells us that, even as a little boy, Bosch was aware of Pepper in his life, not just as a musician but as a friend of Bosch’s prostitute mother. At one desperate point, the very young Bosch imagined that Pepper might even have been his father.

Connelly uses Pepper as an artistic touchstone throughout the Bosch series, a process that reaches a high emotional point in the 2012 book, The Black Box. It’s in this novel that Bosch’s sixteen-year-old daughter Madeleine gives him a birthday present of a six-CD case of a recently released concert recording from years earlier by the long since deceased Pepper. The moment in the book is deeply affecting, and it’s Bosch’s whole-hearted attachment to the music that makes the scene work.

My own ideal among jazz musicians, my equivalent of Connelly’s Art Pepper, is the pianist Bill Evans, a player of extraordinary lyricism and beauty. Could I get across the sense of how I—and Crang—feel about Evans as Connelly has done with Pepper? No doubt not as effectively—for sure there would be no prostitute mother in sight—but it might be worth a try. And, in fact, it’s an effort I’m making in the seventh Crang novel, the one I’m writing right now. Jazz makes its usual appearances in the book, but more than anything, I’m trying to introduce to readers the distinctive spell that Crang and I find only in Bill Evans’s music.

Sleuthage, or Ageing Sleuths!

[originally published on 16 May 2017 at Dundurn.com]

At one point in Widow’s Walk, the twenty-ninth novel in Robert B. Parker’s masterful series featuring Spenser, the Boston private eye, Spenser says to another character in the book, “In all the years I’ve known you, you haven’t aged any more than I have.”

The joke in this remark is that at the time—Widow’s Walk is a 2002 book—Spenser would have been all of seventy-two years old!

Spenser never mentioned his age in the book nor did he bring up the subject in specifics at any other time in the series. But he occasionally dropped autobiographical details that, for those who cared to do the math, revealed just how ancient he grew in the sleuthing business. Spenser told us more than once that he boxed Jersey Joe Walcott in a professional heavyweight bout, and he let it drop a couple of times that he fought in the Korean War. These were events of the early 1950s, and if we assume Spenser was about twenty at the time, then he had reached his seventies in the early years of the twenty-first century.

But Robert B. Parker never allowed passing time to take the edge off Spenser, even as a septuagenarian. It was clear that in each book Parker kept the books contemporary as the decades passed. He made sure the technology was more or less up to date, cell phones and computers assuming their place in everyday life (Spenser adopted the former, though not with any fancy add-ons, and mostly disdained the latter). But no matter how the rest of the world evolved, Spenser’s appearance and fitness were never allowed to change or diminish, no wrinkles for him, no sagging muscles. He continued to outpunch young punks, remained the fastest man on the draw in gunfights, still got himself up for twenty-four hour stakeouts. Spenser flourished as the unconquerable hero until the very end of the series, which came only with Parker’s death in 2010 (he was 77, about the same age as Spenser).

While Spenser’s performances as a geezer seemed remarkable, they were also ludicrous—actually delivering a KO blow to an adversary forty years junior? —and it was with the need to avoid this risible element in my own books that I set out in 2013 to write a new book featuring Crang, the smartass Toronto criminal lawyer who operates more like a private eye.

I had already written four much earlier Crang novels, the last of the four being Blood Count, which dated back to 1991. Crang’s age hovered somewhere in the early forties in that book, and as ever, he came across as a guy whose sleuthing was mainly of a ratiocinative nature. Though he was a fairly fit fellow, he didn’t get into fist fights if he could finesse them with clever chatter. And as for guns, they were as ignorable to Crang as they were to most urban Canadians.

So, twenty-two years after Blood Count, when I began the new book, Take Five, I realized Crang would now be in his early sixties. That struck me as probably too ancient for a guy who carried on as a private eye, even as one who relied mostly on brain power. I was aware that elderly PIs have been known to survive the fictional profession’s built-in menaces to mind and body; one notable example was the central figure in L.A. Morse’s enchanting 1981 novel, The Old Dick, a PI who described himself as “about a million years old” (he was actually seventy-eight) and bore up under several assaults on his person. But, not wanting to subject Crang to such risks, I cheated with his age. I made him fifty in Take Fiveand only marginally older in its successor books, and hoped that finicky fans of Crang wouldn’t mind. Maybe they wouldn’t even notice that, in twenty-two years, Crang had blown out the candles on his birthday cake only ten times.

But more important than Crang’s age, I needed to be sensible in scenes in the new books that demanded a certain degree of physicality on Crang’s part. He was pretty much of a softy in the early novels, usually preferring flight over a standup fight when a showdown with very bad guys loomed. That was an attitude to which I gave renewed emphasis in the fifty-year-old Crang. Better to be alive and possibly regarded as cowardly than triumphant and dead as a doornail.

Or, as an alternate to flight, I put luck on Crang’s side when danger threatened. In Keeper of the Flame (2016), a muscular killer slipped up behind Crang, who was standing on the edge of the roof on a twelve-storey Toronto office building, intent on pushing Crang to his doom. Crang caught a last second glimpse of the villain, ducked and it was the attacking adversary who flew over Crang and off the roof (though not to his death since he crash landed on a balcony immediately below the roof).

Crang himself wasn’t above counting on rescue from friends when he found himself in a physical jam. In Booking In, a Crang book to be published later this year, a bully with a punch comes at Crang from the side and lands a blow that flattens our man. Does Crang rise to the fight? Not him. He leaves the response to a young female pal of his named Sally whose fanatical dedication to Zumba, a gym routine that combines muscular samba dances with squats and lunges, has turned her into a fighting machine, and it’s Sally whose fist crunches the bully’s nose.

As I see it, that’s a typical Crang situation in the greying period of his life. Rather than allowing him to carry on as if the passing years hadn’t worn him down in the slightest degree, as Robert B. Parker had done with Spenser, I preferred to portray Crang as the sleuth who looked and acted his age at all times. It seemed more sensible that way and definitely not so open to possible jokes and mockery from the readers.