26 November 2019

P.I. Nocturne

Benny Goodman and Gene Krupa
In a couple of recent SleuthSayers posts, O’Neil and Leigh talked about pre-rock music. I’d like to take my cue from them and offer my nine cents’ worth (inflation) on the topic. Music infuses my life and because of that it also infuses much of my writing.

As I mentioned in my comment on O’Neil’s post, I think there’s a lot of good music before rock. I love baroque music and well, that’s a hell of a long time before rock. But mostly I’m talking here about the swing/big band music of the 1930s and 40s. I love a lot of that music.

I’m a rock n roller, love to sing it, play it, not saying I’m any good, just like to do it. I grew up on it. And when I was a kid and teen it was all I wanted to listen to. My dad liked classical music and swing and if we were in the car and he put those on I would gag. But somehow, as I got older I began to appreciate other genres of music besides rock. I think partially because I was exposed to it as a kid—very much against my will—and also because I like/d old movies from the 1930s and 40s and was exposed to that music in them as well.

Duke Ellington - Take the A Train

When I was a kid, I got to see Benny Goodman play. And I hated it. I didn’t appreciate it. I feel like an idiot saying that today, but it is what it is. That said, I can still say I saw him. These days, I love his music, especially Sing Sing Sing, and wish I could have seen him again as an adult.

Benny Goodman - Sing Sing Sing

A very long time ago, my friend Linda (who’s also into old movies, old music and old L.A., like me), and I would cruise around L.A. and see various swing bands and singers. It was long enough ago that we actually got to see some of the performers from the 30s and 40s, who were still around. We saw Tex Beneke leading the Glenn Miller Orchestra. We saw Bob Eberly and Helen O’Connell, who, when they were with the Jimmy Dorsey band (one of my favorite big bands), sing their hits Brazil and Tangerine. You might recall an instrumental version of the latter wafting in from down the street in Double Indemnity.

Bob Eberly and Helen O'Connell - Tangerine

So, even though I loved—and still love—rock ‘n’ roll, my musical horizons expanded quite a bit as I got older. I found there was a lot of great and sinuous music pre-rock. Just listen to Sing Sing Sing, or Duke Ellington’s Take the A Train or Artie Shaw’s Frenesi and so much more.

There’s also been some great musical moments in film noirs:

Elisha Cook in Phantom Lady

Louis Armstrong in The Strip, and Mickey Rooney drumming his heart out in that.

And the jazz scene in the original D.O.A.

But the point I’m leading up to is that, as a writer, my story/novel titles are often inspired by music and songs. Mostly rock, because they’re mostly set in the rock era, but sometimes swing. The title of my upcoming novel, The Blues Don’t Care, is inspired by a Nat King Cole song. And a story I did many years ago, Sleepy Lagoon Nocturne, takes its title both from the infamous Sleepy Lagoon incident in L.A. during World War II and the song of that name, which inspired the name of the lagoon in that incident. My story title Born Under a Bad Sign is inspired by the blues song of the same name that was originally recorded by Albert King and covered by Cream, so it hits two genres of music.

Nat King Cole - The Blues Don't Care

Some of my story titles inspired by music are: Endless Vacation (Ramones), Poison Heart (Ramones), Deserted Cities of the Heart (Cream), and more. In fact, I just finished a story called Can’t Find My Way Home (Blind Faith) and another, Nowhere Man (the Beatles). Music is everywhere in my writing.

I sometimes write things set in the past. The Blues Don’t Care (coming out in 2020) is also set on the L.A. homefront during World War II. It’s largely set on Central Avenue, L.A.’s swing and big band center. And the music of that era wafts sensuously around and through the plot. Doing the research for that was so much fun that getting any writing done was difficult. (I’ll be talking more about this book closer to its release. But right now I’m just talking about the music.)

Many of my characters also listen to music, and sometimes play it, like Ray Hood, the lead character in Dead Man’s Curve, named after the Jan and Dean song. P.I. Duke Rogers (from my novel White Heat and its sequel Broken Windows, both set in the 1990’s), listens to a variety of new wave and alternative music, everything from k.d. lang to Portishead and even some Eric Clapton. His less open and less tolerant partner, Jack, only listens to classical and cowboy (not country) music, which he thinks are the only pure/legitimate forms of music (and I like those genres too). He calls Duke’s music “space case” music in Broken Windows. But the music isn’t there only to help define their characters. I use their musical tastes to highlight the difference between the two characters and their contrasting personalities.

Music is a big part of my writing, helping express character and mood, though sometimes music can be difficult to express in a “two-dimensional” medium. It’s a bummer we can’t have a soundtrack to our stories/novels, but I’m sure that’s coming with e-books, if it isn’t already here.

I often listen to music while I write and most often it’s the kind of music that can get me in the mood for what I’m writing. So if I’m writing something set during WWII I listen to big band, if I’m writing something more contemporary, I listen to one kind of rock or another. You get the idea.

Today I’m listening to Benny Goodman and Duke Ellington and who knows what stories they might inspire or how it will affect what I’m working on right now. That’s one of the great things about music, it can inspire you in so many ways and bring out emotions, thoughts and feelings that we sometimes stifle in our everyday lives—and it can do the same for our characters. And remember, it don’t mean a thing if ain’t got that swing.


And now for the usual BSP:

Don't forget to check out Broken Windows, the sequel to my Shamus award-winning novel, White Heat. Betty Webb at Mystery Scene magazine says: "Broken Windows is extraordinary."

Please join me on Facebook: www.facebook.com/paul.d.marks and check out my website  www.PaulDMarks.com


  1. Nice posting. Lot of good research there. Cool.

  2. Hi Paul,

    I love all kinds of music and took both singing and guitar lessons in my youth. I enjoy listening to music, but when I write I like a quiet room so I hear the words I type in my head as I work.

  3. I completely agree with the concept of writing music into stories. They need the flavor that music instills into any setting. I like many different styles of music, but mostly listen to Hawaiian. Since I wrote stories set in Hawaii, its a natural mood music for me. Love swing music, string classical, and certain operas. Nothing heavy or dark.

  4. I always enjoy listening to music when I write. Ear phones are a wonderful invention and my tastes vary widely. I often like to listen to selections from movie soundtracks, too. Strange?

  5. I always liked swing - for one thing, my parents were so happy, dancing to the swing band 78s. So to me, it's feel-good music. But I was just too young for 1950s rock and roll. Never could get into it. My wheelhouse in mid-60s on. And then I discovered jazz, and then classical, and then world... My tastes are highly eclectic.

  6. Thanks for your comment, Jacqueline. For me it depends what I’m doing. Sometimes these days I also like quiet when I write. But other times I write to music. Sometimes the music can be distracting, but that’s when I put on baroque. It’s not distracting.

  7. Thanks for your comment, DanceHula. I agree that music instills flavor into the settings. It can also help to define characters or show an aspect of their personalities.

  8. Thanks, Dave, for your comment. There’s some great music on movie soundtracks. I don’t think it’s strange at all.

  9. Thanks, Eve. I’m with you, my tastes are eclectic. But I also love mid-60s. I confess: I’m a Beatles freak. And I think it's nice that we were exposed to swing and other thigns when we were young. Like I said, I protested having to listen to it, but ultimately it served me well.

  10. Thanks for this post, Paul. My grandfather was a drummer with Artie Shaw before Shaw hit the big time, and I've always been a fan of big band music. (Even though my own crime series has a classical theme, which is my fave.) Just listened to "Frenesi" again - it's a good one!

  11. Thanks for your comment, BV. And that is really cool that your grandfather was a drummer with Artie Shaw. Did he have some great stories? I love that era, the forties. I know there were a lot of hardships, but still some great things.

  12. You got to see+hear Benny Goodman! Wow, just wow. Most of us have been stuck with bands named after famed band leaders. I love Sing, Sing, Sing. I've managed to find three different versions and more are out there.

    My aunt was best friends with Buddy Rich's wife, which is like saying, "I knew a friend of a friends…" She never talked about music, only about the life, which wasn't fun for her. She'd seen a lot, travelled a lot, done a lot, but the dream of a South Texas girl eluded her, a picket fence and 2.2 children. Some people entertain, some pay a price.

  13. Well, like I said, Leigh, I saw Benny Goodman, but at the time I didn't appreciate it. I wish I would have.

    And that's really cool about your aunt and Buddy Rich's wife.

  14. Great post, Paul! You’ve seen more of The Greats in concert than anyone I know. I didn’t know you also saw some of the greats from the jazzy, earlier era of music, too. Envious! I was lucky enough to catch some jazz greats around LA during the ‘90s, when there were still a bunch of jazz clubs around. For me, there’s no better live music than jazz.

  15. Fabulous post, Paul! Jer and I share such a passion for swing music that we tracked down a "tenor" band we read about in the LA Times comprised of old swing musicians and hired them to play at our wedding. I am SO jealous that you got to hear all those performers live. And what's the "Sleepy Lagoon" story? That was "our song" at our wedding!

  16. Thanks, Larry. I did used to go to a lot of concerts and other stuff. These days I’m making up for my wayward youth by being a hermit most of the time. That’s cool that you got to see some of the jazz greats, too. And get their autographs. That’s something I never did.

  17. Thanks, Ellen. That’s really cool that you had that band at your wedding. That must have been great. I used to go to a lot of concerts and things but when I think about it today it seems like it was another person. And that’s really cool that Sleepy Lagoon was your wedding song. My story was called Sleepy Lagoon Nocturne. It was in an anthology, but I can’t remember which one. I’ll look it up and send you an e-mail.


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