[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.