Saturday, January 27, 2007

Swing: A Mystery

Title: Swing

Author: Rupert Holmes (official web site)

Copyright: 2005, Random House (ISBN 1-4000-6158-0, hardcover with CD)

Genre: Mystery

Length: 358 pages

Summary: California, September, 1940, jazz musician Ray Sherwood is in town to play a gig at the Hotel Claremont. His abilities as an arranger are enlisted by musician-composer Gail Prentice, winner of a recent musical competition. Her composition will be played at the Golden Gate Exposition by the Pan-Pacific orchestra and she needs Ray to work out the appropriate scoring for each instrument. Ray, traveling with an enormous amount of (emotional) baggage himself, agrees to at least listen to the work before making any firm commitment, but that's all it takes to thrust him into the flow of an international intrigue. Minutes later, he witnesses a young woman's fall to her death at the exposition. Subsequent events in the story expose him to injury and blackmail, while his past threatens his present connection with Gail. It's all ever-so-RKO- movie stuff. The back story unfolds somewhat slowly in the first third of the book but gives way to more of the mystery in the second third. Puzzles abound as the scope of the crime gets revealed in the final third but the abruptness of the final resolution may leave some readers unsatisfied. Characterization throughout is good.


I openly studied her face, seeing her in a new light even as the sky grew ominously dark. Take twenty years from her, fill her with giggle water until she's juiced, let an honest smile cross her features and yes, she might have been one of my conquests back then.
"I understand that you might dislike me," I said.
"Oh, you're much too kind to yourself," she said, taking a Pall Mall from the clutch bag she carried.

Also Relevant: The excerpt above should give an indication of the slight resemblance here to a Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett novel. Unfortunately, Holmes' style isn't as literary as Chandler's or as hard-boiled as Hammett's. Holmes' greatest success in this novel is the sharp turns built into Swing. Particularly in the final third of the story, he ends a chapter with one amazing revelation, only to reverse your sense of where things are headed on the opening page of the next chapter.

The book's theme is coping with death and/or the threat of imminent death. The references to Nazi aggression in World War II and the treatment of Jews in Europe is a constant thread in the story.

This was a selection for the Township Library mystery group and they seemed to like this one. One gentleman was familiar with the setting of the novel and brought printouts from Google Maps to show the rest of the group. (The exposition's Treasure Island became a naval station during the War). Everyone enjoyed the swing band sound of the CD, but the claim that one can pick up clues to the mystery by listening to the music was deemed to be *quite frankly* bogus. The entire novel had originally been intended as the basis of a Broadway musical, but the death of the author's daughter infused the music he composed with such sadness that Holmes shelved the project.

Rupert Holmes is an award-winning lyricist and writer for the Broadway stage, including The Mystery of Edwin Drood and that wonderful AMC television series, Remember WENN. He has been nominated for an Edgar this year for his play, Curtains. He is most immediately known to a broader population as the composer of the TV theme song for The Partridge Family and the hit pop song Escape (The Pina Colada Song) which was a major hit back in 1979-1980. Just as most of us would acknowledge that song as fun but not perhaps the culmination of musical achievement, we can say pretty much the same of this book. Enjoyable, but not what one would likely call literature in its highest form.

More: A review from the Christian Science Monitor and the New York Times' Marilyn Stasio's review of Swing