Each decorative bar is a clickable link to
a video of the book of the day and a piece of seasonal music
I have been a singer for most of my life. My first recalled performance was dressed up in a kilt and velvet bonnet singing The Bonnie Banks of Loch Lomond, at the age of five, on the stage of the Methodist church hall. Some would say it went downhill from then, but I have enjoyed singing opera, oratorio, folk music and even in rock bands. I no longer perform except to the microphone at home, but a good singing voice can make my spine tingle like no other instrument. Here are ten pieces of music by great singers. One or two of my choices might surprise you, but please take a listen. Click each graphic to link to a YouTube video of the song. I’ll upload one every couple of days until we get to Number One.
irst up, read my review of Their Little Secret. Back in the day when I was too busy earning a living to be able to spend time on a book review website, I had to get books from my local library. One of the authors I revered the most was Mark Billingham, and my joy at finding an unread Tom Thorne novel on the ‘B’ shelves of the Crime Fiction section was genuine.
I’ll be quite blunt now. Running this website doesn’t bring in any money, and the only costs to me are the postage when sending out competition prizes. BUT – and it’s a huge BUT – publishers and publicists trust me with their books, and I have a lovely To Be Read pile thanks to their generosity. Occasionally, I’m able to read a book on my Kindle while still having a print copy of the novel in question. Then, I usually offer the untouched book as a competition prize. So who fancies Their Little Secret?
can’t make it too random, so here’s a little decider. You can answer by email to email@example.com putting Their Little Secret in the subject box. Alternatively, you can follow Fully Booked on Twitter, and send me your answer as a private message. Don’t just Tweet the answer, as you will give the game away! Tom Thorne loves his music, but which genre is he most likely to put on his CD player at the end of a long day, when he slumps on his sofa with a beer in hand? Make your choice and let me know your answer. The competition will close at 10.00pm UK time on Sunday 12th May, and a winner will be drawn from the digital hat.
John Lawton is a master of historical fiction set in and around World War II. His central character is Fred Troy, a policeman of Russian descent. His emigré father is what used to be called a ‘Press Baron’. Fred’s brother Rod will go on to become a Labour Party MP in the 1960s, but is interned during the war. His sisters are bit players, but memorable for their sexual voracity. Neither man nor woman is safe from their advances.
Fred becomes one of London’s top coppers, but to categorise the novels as police procedurals is accurate only in as far as that there are policemen in the books, and they occasionally have procedures. All this being said, Troy is in the background during much of A Lily of the Field, where we follow the life of teenager Méret Voytek, a brilliant young Viennese cellist.
As a twelve-year-old, she begins lessons in cello and piano from an eminent musician, Viktor Rosen. He realises instantly that she is prodigiously talented, and he gives her a gift:
After the Anschluss, through her own naivete and a tragic act of fate, she is caught holding a bundle of anti-Nazi leaflets while traveling on the tram. She is taken by the SS and ends up in Auschwitz. Meanwhile, her parents have been likewise detained, and their family home ransacked. Méret’s skill as a musician has already been noted but, ever naive, she questions her friend Magda about why she has been singled out.
In the bitterest of paradoxes, the Auschwitz commandant, has a musical ear, and so he puts together an orchestra made up of the many skilled inmates. One of their bizarre duties is to play beautiful music as their less talented companions trudge off to work in the morning. Méret plays for her life, literally. The physical privations she undergoes are heart-breaking, but still she plays, still she clings on to what is left of her humanity.
In January 1945, with the Russians approaching from the east, and the British and Americans from the west, the Germans realise that the game is up. Auschwitz inmates who are too infirm to walk are shot, and the remainder are sent out, under guard, to start the infamous Death March. In the freezing conditions few survive, but just as Meret is about to succumb, their column is overtaken by a Russian detachment. Salvation? Hardly. The first instinct of the Russian soldiers is to rape the women. Méret is saved by a no-nonsense officer. At this point, Fred Troy aficionados will recognise Major Larissa Tosca, Fred’s one-time lover. She has, in her time, spied for both America and for Russia, but here her cap bears the Red Star.
Long-time Lawton readers will know that he leaps about between the years with a sometimes bewildering agility. True to form, the climax of this book is played out in post war London and Paris. Méret’s rescue by the Russians has come at a price, and we find her tangled up in the spy ‘games’ which characterised much of the Cold War period. Lawton is much too clever a writer just to tell this one tale, however gripping it may be. Woven into the fabric is another thread which involves an interned Hungarian physicist, Dr. Karel Szabo, who ends up as a key figure in the American efforts to build and test the first atomic bomb.
One of the key figures from the spy ring of which Méret is a part is murdered in London, and it is then that Fred Troy becomes involved. For all his many qualities, Troy is an inveterate womaniser, but he is not a sexual beast, and the late scenes where he spends time with the fragile Méret, still beautiful but old before her time, are haunting in their compassion.
‘Troy had never heard her laugh. It was like that moment in Ninotchka when Garbo laughs on-screen for the first time. It is not merely that she laughs, but that she laughs so long and so loud.
As the laughter subsided she was grasping at words and not managing to get a sentence out.
“Oh, Troy ….oh, Troy..this is….this is a farce. Don’t you see? Viktor taught us the same part.”
“We’re two left-handed women trying to dance backward. Neither of us knows the man’s part.”
She reached up her sleeve for a handkerchief to dab her tears and found none. Troy gave her his, a huge square of Irish linen with an overfancy ‘f’ in one corner.
Being drunk did not make her loquacious. In that, she was like Troy. At two in the morning Voytek was deeply asleep in front of the fire. Troy picked her up, astonished at how little she weighed, carried her upstairs and slid her into the spare bed. She did not wake. He went to his own bed.
A Lily of the Field is far from being a dry history novel where the factual details are more important than the plot and the dialogue. It is tense, funny, occasionally very violent, and written with a style and fluency which leaves lesser authors struggling in Lawton’s wake. Above all, of course, it is about music. Méret’s brilliance as a musician is both her curse and her salvation.
A final little gem, which I only noticed recently. If you look closely at the book’s cover, you can see Méret Voytek, in her red coat, moving away from us. With her cello slung over her shoulder, she walks into history.
Follow the links below to read the previous four parts in the series.
Existing fans of Phil Rickman’s superbly evocative Merrily Watkins novels can skip this paragraph. As in all the best fiction series, there is a stable cast of recurring characters. So, for new readers, the Rickman Repertory Company is led by the Reverend Merrily Watkins: widow, mother, parish priest and Dioceson Deliverance officer (modern C of E speak for exorcist). Then comes Jane, her teenage daughter and inveterate dabbler-into-things-she-oughtn’t-to-be-dabbling-in. Gomer Parry, local drainage contractor, voice of common sense and elderly savant. Representing the forces of law and order is Frannie Bliss, detective with the Herefordshire Constabulary, scouser and all-purpose square peg. The musical director of this ensemble is Lawrence ‘Lol’ Robinson, dazzling guitarist, singer songwriter, sometime depressive, sufferer from paralysing stage fright – and the long term boyfriend of Merrily.
Lol has a serious back-story. In To Dream of The Dead, Rickman spells it out in stark clarity:
“Barely twenty and convicted of sexually assaulting a fourteen-year-old girl while on tour with Hazey Jane. An offence actually committed, while Lol was asleep, by the band’s bass player, who’d walked away, leaving Lol on probation, unjustly disgraced, disowned by his creepy Pentecostalist parents, swallowed by the psychiatric system. His career wrecked, his spirit smashed.”
As he creates Lol’s complex character, Rickman wants us to think of a real-life singer and guitarist, Nick Drake. Cynics might say that when the Gods take young musicians, it is a cast iron guarantee that both victim and music will achieve a kind of immortal celebrity that they may not have reached had they lived. Who can say with certainty that Eddie Cochran, Buddy Holly, Janis Joplin, Marc Bolan, Jimi Hendrix and others in the pantheon of dead rock stars would now be as famous in life as they have become in death?
Lol Robinson shares Nick Drake’s intensity, delicate guitar playing, haunting voice and sense of sublime anxiety about himself and the world he lives in. But, thanks to the support of Merrily Watkins and others, Lol comes through his bad times and lives to perform and record again. As he emerges from the darkness, he almost becomes as one with his guitar. Like Frank Westworth, Phil Rickman clearly knows, loves and plays the instrument, and he gifts Lol a beautiful hand-made guitar. Its maker is Al Boswell, a unique craftsman; part gypsy, part mystic and a man whose hands seem guided by forces older than any skills learned in a school woodwork class.
Not content with making one of the spear-carriers in his ensemble a fascinating and compelling character, Rickman goes one step further. He has actually recreated Lol’s band Hazey Jane, and they have made videos and sound recordings to prove the point.
Click on the image below to visit Phil Rickman’s own site, and learn more – and hear more – about Lol Robinson and Hazey Jane II.
Before he had the brainwave which gave us Merrily Watkins in The Wine of Angels (1998), Rickman wrote several standalone novels. The most music-centred one was December (1994). It begins on the evening of Monday 8th December, 1980. For most people of a certain age, that date will be an instant trigger, but Rickman (right) sets us down in a ruined abbey in the remote Welsh hamlet of Ystrad Ddu, which sits at the foot of one of The Black Mountains, Ysgyryd Fawr – more commonly known by its anglicised form The Skirrid. Part of the medieval abbey has been fitted out as a recording studio and, in a cynical act of niche marketing, a record impresario has contracted a folk rock band, The Philosopher’s Stone, to record an album of mystical songs in the haunted building, and he has stipulated that the tracks must be laid down between midnight and dawn.
Shortly before 4.00am, as the band are playing a song which relates the tragic story of Aelwyn, a young Celtic man who was hacked to death in the abbey grounds by Norman invaders in 1175, what was already a fractious and uneasy atmosphere turns distinctly sinister. Acoustic guitarist Dave Reilly is overcome by disturbing visions and, as he escapes the studio to shelter under an ancient oak tree, over three thousand miles away it is 10.50 pm and a disturbed young Hawaiian man called Mark David Chapman is pumping four bullets into former Beatle and musical legend, John Lennon.
As if the ill-fated recording session is not already attracting enough malevolent vibrations, things are about to get worse – much, much worse. Lead guitarist Tom Storey – as notorious for his abuse of drink and drugs as he is celebrated for his guitar virtuosity – has had enough. He has left his pregnant wife Deborah in a nearby hotel and, angry at the shambolic and disturbing recording session, commandeers a Land Rover and storms off to be with her. Deborah, meanwhile has decided to come out to Ystrad Ddu to ‘rescue’ her husband. As John Lennon is bleeding to death in the back of a police car, Tom’s Land Rover smashes into Deborah’s Lotus sports car.
“Twenty yards away, the old blue Land Rover driven by Tom Storey has brought down a low, sleek Lotus Elan, like a lion with a gazelle. The Land Rover has torn into the Lotus and savaged it and its guts are out and still heaving, and Dave can see flames leaping into the vertical rain …..”
Rickman takes us forward to the present day. The Philosopher’s Stone is no more. It died on that fateful December night. Tom Storey has remarried, but lives as a recluse in a Cotswold mansion with his second wife and daughter Vanessa, removed from the dying body of her mother but afflicted with Down’s Syndrome. Singer Moira Cairns has flirted with the folk music scene, but has largely retreated from public life. Dave Reilly has eked out a threadbare living as a musician, but is cursed with an ability to sense the supernatural, and his ‘gift’ has done him no favours. Bass player Simon St John has abandoned music altogether (apart from in the privacy of his own room) and has taken holy orders.
Novels and, indeed, films, would not be able to create their magic were it not for the priceless ability of fictional characters to make decisions which turn out to be disastrous – and often fatal – mistakes. So it is in December. An unscrupulous music executive, desperate for something that will give his flagging career an edge, discovers a box of tapes, all that remains of the fatal pre-dawn music making in December 1980. A highly respected producer, Ken ‘Prof’ Levin (who features as a mentor to Lol Robinson in the Merrily Watkins novels) is persuaded to restore the tapes. To say that all hell breaks loose as a consequence is putting it mildly. Ghosts don’t like being woken from their dreamless sleep by money-grubbing mortals, and they exact a high price for their inconvenience.
Amid all the psychic mayhem, this is unashamedly a novel about guitars and their magic. We have Stratocasters, Martins, Takemines, Ovations, Telecasters and Les Pauls. Rickman’s fascination with his chosen instrument shines through, and his enthusiasm will inspire many a lapsed player to blow the dust off their guitar case, open it up and coax an old tune from their neglected lover.
Check out the buying options for December, and other Phil Rickman novels, here.
You can also read the Fully Booked review of the most recent Merrily Watkins novel
All Of A Winter’s Night
You can catch up with the previous parts of this series by clicking the links.
Jean-Jacques ‘JJ’ Stoner is a stone cold killer. His creator, Frank Westworth gives us a first glimpse of him as an army sergeant serving in Iraq. One of his squad has just been fatally wounded by a knife thrown by one of a group of Iraqis who:
“….. plainly considered that the knife’s flight was the result of heavenly intervention and that they were all witnesses to a miraculous act, rather than a clever murderous attempt.”
The sergeant quietly but forcefully demands information:
“His words produced only more theatrical incomprehension. Five sets of open palms were paraded before the sergeant; all of them as innocent as the other, was the suggestion. A single shot interrupted the stage grief; one of the Iraqis sagged from seated to fallen, his dark blood draining from his exploded head into the sands of his native home. The sergeant held his smoking handgun in plain view, spread his arms wide to express his regret, his masculine sorrow.”
Sergeant Stoner assassinates the remaining Iraqis with neither hesitation nor sentiment. Shortly after, he is recruited by a government official we come to know as The Hard Man. Stoner’s new job is to use sharp blades and blunt instruments to discreetly resolve difficult situations for the British government. If Stoner has a gruesome talent for taking life, he also has a paradoxical skill which requires sensitivity, a delicate touch and an awareness of the human soul and its emotional depths; he is a gifted guitarist. In one of Westworth’s short stories, First Contract, Stoner uses his musical ear to imitate a Belfast accent when in a pub full of staunch Republicans:
“Beaming broadly, Stoner took a seat with the band. His lady companion ….. watched with some surprise as Stoner changed the tuning on the borrowed acoustic guitar, acknowledged a generous introduction from the leader of the band, then launched into a medley of furious Provo protest songs, familiar to all in that Catholic bar, all with their choruses to share.”
In the short story Two Wrongs Stoner is in America and we are introduced to a character who appears regularly in the Stoner stories, the navy SEAL known as Stretch. He and Stoner are in a bar, tangling with an agent from the FBI. Stoner, though, always has time for music:
“ Stoner finished his Bud, smacked his lips, and moved smoothly through the quietened attentive crowd to the stage, where he picked up the borrowed Fender Telecaster, smacked it a little to confirm the inaccuracy of its tuning, and launched into a spontaneous version of Johnny B. Goode set to a strange rolling rockabilly rhythm which found Stretch running, actually running from the restrooms to the stage in what proved to be a successful attempt to save the song from the amused Englishman’s attempt to publicly destroy such an important icon of American history.”
Westworth’s skill as a writer of quirky thrillers is shown to best effect in his Killing Sisters trilogy. In A Last Act of Charity (2014), The Corruption of Chastity (2015) and The Redemption of Charm (2017) Stoner encounters three sisters who are just as deadly and homicidal as he is. We also learn that in his downtime, when he is not despatching people who are being an embarrassment to HM Government, he is running a jazz and blues club called The Blue Cube. The closest thing that Stoner has to a girlfriend is a diminutive bass player called Bili who plays in the house band from which Stoner is often conspicuously absent due to his murderous day job.
“Bili swung her big red Rickenbacker bass into what might have been a comfortable playing position, and all three looked to far stage left, where Amanda rolled her eyes, took a deep breath and surprised them all by blasting from her shiny tenor saxophone the opening stanza of Baker Street, one of the most recognisable lumps of sax music of all time.”
It doesn’t take a genius to work out that Westworth (right) is deeply immersed in the lore and legend of pop music as well as knowing his guitars. The Killing Sisters books are scattered with references – some subtle, but others more obvious – to great songs and singers. Later in The Redemption of Charm, Stoner renews his acquaintance with his favourite guitar:
“His old Fender guitar sat easily in his lap as he tuned, fingered a few chords, tuned again, hummed a few verses, tuned some more, strangely restless. The guitar felt odd … polished maybe. The strings were certainly new enough, although of the correct weight for his taste. He replaced it in its case, wandered around and discovered another case, standing by the closed piano, this one containing an acoustic guitar, a fine blonde Gibson model unfamiliar to him.”
Stoner is gloomy, and overcome with melancholy, states of mind with which he is unfamiliar, and strange moods sit heavy on his shoulders:
“He played a finger-picked instrumental tune he half remembered from the days before his playing focused entirely on electric solid-bodied guitars. A famous tune by Davey Graham dedicated to some woman called Anji. Unbidden and unwelcome somehow, his memory unearthed a series of images of women to whom he’d dedicated the song down the years.”
You can follow the blue links to the Amazon pages for Westworth’s novels, and on Fully Booked we have a detailed review of The Redemption of Charm, and an entertaining piece by the author on how to kill people, again borrowing from the title of a classic song – Killing Me Softly.
Next up in our musical journey is the story of a gifted singer-songwriter whose career has been shattered by depression and stage fright, and the sombre tale of a band whose obsession with the Dakota Building and the death of John Lennon takes them to a very dark place.
This look at how music features as a soundtrack to many crime fiction novels will ignore works which simply have song titles or lyrics as chapter headings, or books which mention various popular songs merely as a device to establish the authenticity of the era in which the action takes place. Also, we will largely leave alone the police procedurals of the maverick Detective Inspector type where the cop in question wears his musical taste not perhaps on his sleeve but certainly on the pages of the narrative. Much to the distaste of most of his colleagues, Mark Billingham’s Tom Thorne has a penchant for country music, particularly the lonesome heartbreak of Hank Williams, while his Yorkshire counterpart Alan Banks veers in the more sophisticated direction of niche blues and jazz. Neither of these performs music, however, except perhaps humming along to something on the car music player.
While everyone is familiar with dear old Endeavour Morse, particularly in his John Thaw personification, glumly consoling himself with his precious recordings of Mozart and Wagner, he squeezes in as a performer of music only because of the TV adaptations. In the novel The Dead of Jericho (1981) he meets the soon-to-be-murdered Anne Scott at a party, but the TV version has them both as members of an Oxford choir.
Colin Dexter’s stories of the wonderful curmudgeon are among the widest read in the last quarter of the 20th century, but less well known are the Vienna-set novels of Frank Tallis featuring policeman Oskar Rheinhardt and his young pyschiatrist friend Dr Max Liebermann. The younger man often plays piano for Rheinhardt melodic baritone as they seek solace from the stresses and strains of catching murderers.
Not only are the pair devotees of their sublime fellow townsman Schubert, but Death And The Maiden (2011) actually features a walk-on part by none other than Gustave Mahler, as Liebermann and Rheinhardt track down the killer of a diva from The State Opera. Among other police officers and investigators who can do rather more than knock out a tune we must include James Patterson’s prolific profiler Alex Cross who, when the mood takes him, plays a mean jazz piano. The violin offers our own Sherlock Holmes a more healthy alternative stimulus to one, two or even three pipes of his favourite tobacco, or a syringe full of his opiate of choice. In A Study In Scarlet we learn:
In the next movement we will hear of the embittered intelligence operative who not only plays a mean Fender Stratocaster, but also owns a jazz/blues club in London.