by Mike Knowles
Sometimes when I am reading a book and I come across a song being played in a scene, I get an urge to stop what I am doing and play the song. I usually go to Youtube and find what the writer put in the book and sit back with my eyes closed listening to the song. For a few minutes, I feel like there is some kind of connection between me and the song that wasn’t there before.
When I first read McFetridge’s Dirty Sweet, I was at my computer all the time listening to different classic rock songs that I forgot I knew the words to. It felt different listening to bands like T-Rex and thinking of what was happening in the crime novel I was reading. What felt different was the genre of music. Usually, I don’t find a lot of rock in crime novels. Usually, I find Jazz.
Michael Connoly’s Harry Bosch loved Jazz, Dan Simmons’ Joe Kurtz was into it, Barry Eisler’s John Rain went to jazz clubs when he wasn’t killing people, even Andrew Vachss’ Burke was a Jazz aficionado. Every time I read one of these books, I came across cops and criminals all into the same thing: Jazz.
I took breaks from reading all of those authors to listen to the music they wrote about, and I liked it. Hearing the music brought me deeper into the book; it was even cool to listen to while reading. But a while back, I decided to go deeper. I had to know why the music was showing up in crime novels over and over again. I had to understand Jazz. I put the Jazz stations on the satellite preset in my car, and I took severe advantage of the public library borrowing all the jazz I could find. I began listening to the music hard and it wasn’t until I began hearing the live tracks that I began to understand why the music was showing up in the books I was reading. I found a link between writing and Jazz.
smithsonianjazz.org explains Jazz as a kind of music in which improvisation is typically an important part. In most jazz performances, players play solos which they make up on the spot, which requires considerable skill.
Musicians changing the songs that came before them with their own unique takes on the tune. How much different is that than writing crime fiction? There are regular themes that most crime stories center around like theft, revenge, justice, etc. These are all ideas that have been around forever. What makes the themes new, what makes them stand out as something interesting, is the different individual changes each writer brings to the page. The unique improvisations that make a story about something you have read about before suddenly different and original.
When I write a story, I get the characters in my head and an idea about what is going to happen and I start writing. I don’t nail down anything, most of it happens on the fly. It is by no means a perfect harmonious process, there are times I have to stop what I am doing because I have written myself into a corner. But most of the time, the best things I come up with, the things I think are clever, happen while I am writing without a plan.
I haven’t completely understood Jazz yet. I don’t think anyone can break it down into a definition. Jazz isn’t something that can be contained. It is about taking risks, about challenging the old with the new. And just when you think you know it, it surprises you by becoming something else. I think Jazz shows up in crime fiction over and over again because writers are after the same thing: to change the old by turning it on its head and showing a different side of an old idea. We improvise, and alter, generating new ideas that will one day themselves be changed. Jazz and writing are similar animals that refuse to remain caged. They find each other like stray dogs who share a mutual desire to find new places to roam and explore.