Doing Damage: Mixtapes of Murder

The following was originally published on Do Some Damage, June 26, 2018.

THE MIX OF CRIME FICTION AND MUSIC has been getting a lot of play recently. Several recent and upcoming anthologies partner harmony and harm, and it’s set me to thinking about how music echoes in the fiction of some of my crime-writing friends as well as my own work.

The Big Score
Publishers certainly like themes to hang books and sales on. Cats. Dogs. Cities. Holidays. Pastiche. Politics. But mostly cats and dogs. Still, there is something special about the duet of music and mystery.

Throughout history, every type of music has been vilified as Devil’s brew. “Ye troubadours maketh much evil!” “That Rudy Vallée sure is a caution!” “(Washboard players / blues singers / jazz musicians / rock stars / rappers) are in league with Satan!” Music is intimate, personal. It throbs with sex, subversion, and trouble. The beat of young love, the thrum of rebellion, the rhythm of the Other. It is the soundtrack to all our sinful thoughts, deeds, and fears, accompanying them and, according to some, even inspiring them.

So it makes sense that mystery and music tango well. Think of the lasting appeal of murder ballads. Of the absurd amount of violence in opera.

Consider Sherlock with his crashing violin. Traditional crime fiction certainly has an ear for classical music, perhaps because its writers had high tone tastes and/or because its fans are rigid upholders of what they perceive to be upper class standards.

But by the mid-20th century, lonesome saxophones haunt the shadows surrounding middle-class private eyes, and later jazzy theme songs introduce such shows as Peter Gunn and 77 Sunset Strip. (Please think of the snappy theme song and not “Kookie, Kookie, Lend Me Your Comb”). And I can’t think of Mike Hammer without thinking of “Harlem Nocturne.” In sum: Music is intricately linked with the genre.

Second Hearse, Same as the First
Music as a plot point for mystery stories has a long history. (For a generous list, see Josef Hoffman’s Music and Crime: 50 Novels). Music-themed crime fiction anthologies go back to at least Murder to Music: Musical Mysteries from Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine and Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine (1998). In this century, there was Murder . . . and All That Jazz (2004) and then A Merry Band of Murderers: An Original Mystery Anthology of Songs and Stories (2006).

More recently — and you might sense a shift here in tastes just from the titles — we’ve had Crime Plus Music: Twenty Stories of Music-Themed Noir (2016), edited by Jim Fusilli, Waiting To Be Forgotten: Stories of Crime and Heartbreak, Inspired by The Replacements (2016), edited by Jay Stringer, and then Gutter Books’ Rock Anthologies, including Trouble in the Heartland: Crime Fiction Based on the Songs of Bruce Springsteen (2014) and Just to Watch Them Die: Crime Fiction Inspired By the Songs of Johnny Cash (2017), both edited by Joe Clifford.

In 2019, we’ll see Murder-a-Go-Go’s: Crime Fiction Inspired by the Music of the Go-Go’s, edited by Holly West, and The Hangman Isn’t Hangin’: Fiction Inspired by the Music of Steely Dan, edited by Brian Thornton.

Thornton calls these kinds of anthologies “the ultimate homage” to musicians who also happen to be great storytellers.

“And Steely Dan and crime fiction? Listen to their lyrics. So many of their songs have a potential or even outright criminal angle: ‘Kid Charlemagne,’ ‘Here at the Western World,’ ‘Sign in Stranger.’ I could go on and on.”

There’s probably more than an air of nostalgia in these collections, too, a longing for a, shall we say, more melodious time. So far, there’re no anthologies inspired by Justin Bieber, Ed Sheeran, or Rihanna. (Also: Note how most anthos so far are about male and dominant paradigm singers/bands.) But give it time.

Hitting a High C — for Crime!
Tiny Crimes anthologyMany of the stories in these anthologies contain lyrics or plot elements from the songs they’re homaging. For the Steely Dan anthology, I chose “Rikki Don’t Lose that Number” and wrote the story trying to figure out Rikki’s side of the story while referencing some of the song’s lines (without crossing into copyright infringement, I hope, I hope).

In writing that story, I realized I use music a lot as a starting point. In the recently published anthology Tiny Crimes: Very Short Tales of Mystery and Murder, edited by Lincoln Michel and Nadxieli Nieto, my story “Withhold the Dawn” was inspired by letting one word follow another as Don McLean’s “American Pie” killed me softly in the background. The song worked its way into the story, which is about a vengeful ax-wielder, not the Big Bopper, et al. But there is a loose pastry allusion.

That’s the way music is. It’s is a large part of the pop culture detritus that litters our brains. But that can be helpful when writing.

Black Car Business AnthologyWhen I was invited to contribute to the upcoming The Black Car Business, Volume 2 (September 2018), edited by Larry Kelter, I was stuck on what to write since I’ve no particular passion for automobiles. So I turned to Gary Numan’s seminal “Cars,” and the line “I’ve started to think about leaving tonight” turned in my head as a moment of crisis for a character. The story grew from there, and the line stuck as the title of the piece.

I’m not the only one, of course. Alison Gaylin (Crime Plus Music, If I Die Tonight) uses music to set the mood when writing, although she finds music with lyrics too distracting. “On the other hand,” she says, “I love to use songs in my books to help set the time period and in characterization. You can tell a lot about a character by what songs they like (and hate!).”

I remember Wallace Stroby’s Gone ‘til November contained many musical references, so he handed out CDs of the songs at his book launch. Says Stroby, “You had Johnny Cash songs next to hip-hop songs next to old soul songs, but they were all on the same theme — people leaving and never coming back. The whole tone I was going for in the book was reflected in the songs.”

Music then hath its charms to soothe (read: prompt, inspire) the savage breast (of the writer), so that he or she may in turn write about savagery.

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“Withhold the Dawn” from TINY CRIMES, Now at CrimeReads

Tiny Crimes AnthologyYou can now read my contribution to the upcoming anthology Tiny Crimes: Very Short Tales of Mystery and Murder, edited by Lincoln Michel and Nadxieli Nieto, on CrimeReads. I’ll be reading this story at the book’s launch at Housing Works on June 5.

“Withhold the Dawn”

You can read the story there, but of course, please click here to check out the anthology, which features stories by Julia Elliott, Danielle Evans, Brian Evenson, Sasha Fletcher, Amelia Gray, Elizabeth Hand, Yuri Herrera, Henry Hoke, Carmen Maria Machado, Benjamin Percy, Adam Sternbergh, Helen Phillips, Laura van den Berg, Charles Yu, and more.

I’m not sure what inspired me to write this story. I originally wrote a very different version of it for a zine I used to publish (“a zine I used to publish” — a phrase that fills me both with pride and with profound embarrassment) back in the 1990s. It had a readership of five, if I include myself. I think this was a story that freewrote itself to life. By which I mean, I started with a word and followed it with another, without any plan or object, and I let myself get pretty damned silly about it, giggling to the finish line. It’s also likely this song was in the background as I was scribbling away.

Thank you, Mr. McLean!

“Withhold the Dawn” is then perhaps my first foray in noir crime fiction, done long before I thought of myself as any kind of crime fiction writer. When I read that Catapult was putting this anthology together, I pulled the story out of mothballs and overhauled it top to bottom.

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TINY CRIMES Giveaway, Reading at Housing Works SOHO

My short short story “Withhold the Dawn” will appear in the upcoming anthology Tiny Crimes: Very Short Tales of Mystery and Murder, edited by Nadxieli Nieto and Lincoln Michel.

Enter for a chance to win a copy of Tiny Crimes here, before April 30. #Goodreads #Giveaway

I’ll be reading at the book launch for Tiny Crimes at Housing Works, 126 Crosby Street, New York, NY, 10012, on Tuesday, June 5, 7 p.m. #Free

Here is the promo copy for the reading: “Tiny Crimes gathers leading and emerging literary voices to tell tales of villainy and intrigue in only a few hundred words. From the most hard-boiled of noirs to the coziest of mysteries, with diminutive double crosses, miniature murders, and crimes both real and imagined, Tiny Crimes rounds up all the usual suspects, and some unusual suspects, too. With illustrations by Wesley Allsbrook and flash fiction by Carmen Maria Machado, Benjamin Percy, Amelia Gray, Adam Sternbergh, Yuri Herrera, Julia Elliott, Elizabeth Hand, Brian Evenson, Charles Yu, Laura van den Berg, and more, [and me,] Tiny Crimes scours the underbelly of modern life to expose the criminal, the illegal, and the depraved. Editors Nadxieli Nieto and Lincoln Michel host an evening of readings from some of the collection’s contributors [et moi].”

“Gruesome” Reviews
Of the anthology, Michael Pucci in the Library Journal noted, “The tenor of each piece varies from the dreamlike (Laura van den Berg’s ‘Friends’) to the deliciously gruesome (Richie Navarez’s [sic] ‘Withhold the Dawn’).”

(I’m used to having my name butchered by now. I should just buy the domain names for every conceivable misspelling, shouldn’t I?)

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Crime Night at the Cell, 3/20/18

On Tuesday, March 20, I’ll be part of Crime Night at the Cell Theatre, with a talented ensemble of artists. The night is a literary salon organized by the Irish American Writers & Artists, the brainchild of Malachy McCourt.

The lineup include John Kearns, Joseph “Good Guy” Goodrich, “Shameless” Seamus Scanlon, Gary “Too Cool” Cahill, Rosina Fernhoff, “Neon” Nina Mansfield, Guen Donohue, “Smartypants” S.A. Solomon, Larry Kirwan, Sarah Covington, Nancy Oda, Jen Cannibals Conley, Mark Butler, and M.C. Neuda.

I’ll be reading from my new novel, Hipster Death Rattle. The show runs from 7 to 9:15 p.m. #FREE

NB: Here is a great rundown of the event, which was a lot of fun!

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Speaking of Which

“What should we drink?” she asked.
“It’s pretty chilly outside right now, don’t you think? How about some hot chocolate?”
“Let’s drink beer.”
“Er, okay, but it’s morning time. Although I guess it is five o’clock somewhere on the planet, am I right?”
“Big ones,” the woman said. “Big as elephants.”
“I’ve never seen one.”
“Seen what?”
“A beer as big as an elephant.”
“No, you wouldn’t have.”
“I might have,” I said. “Just because you say I wouldn’t have doesn’t prove anything.”
“What did you say?”
“I was going to tell you that I’m running a workshop for the Bronx Writers Center. That’s in the Bronx, by the way.”
“Could we try it?”
“Well, sure, it’s a free workshop. Anybody can try it.”
“Is it good with water?”
“It is for me. All that speaking makes my mouth parched. But I try to make it interactive, so it’s not just me yammering on the whole time. Though I will be doing a lot of yammering.”
“It tastes like licorice.”
“What’s that now?”
“Yes, everything tastes of licorice. Especially all the things you’ve waited so long for, like absinthe.”
“Or this workshop! It’s about dialogue in writing. It’s called ‘Say What? Using Dialogue in Your Writing’ on Saturday, January 20. Get it? ‘Say What?’ I thought of that all by myself.”
“Wasn’t that bright.”
“From noon to 2 p.m. At the Bronx Library Center, 310 East Kingsbridge Road. Also in the Bronx, by the way. I’m taking the bus to get there because taking the train would take forever. I could take a CitiBike, but this high up in the Bronx, we don’t rate. Are you going to be there?”
“I guess so.”
“Oh, and it’s free. There’s a plus. But you should really RSVP.”
“Should we have another drink?”
“I guess. But who’s buying?”

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Back in Brooklyn

On Saturday, October 14, I’ll be participating in Indie Author Day at the Williamsburgh Public Library, 240 Division Avenue, in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. That’s the library where I used to research my reports in sixth grade and junior high. I haven’t been back since, so this should be nostalgic. Or rage-inducing. Williamsburg does both for me.

I’ll be doing a brief workshop on “Writing Diverse Characters in Sci-fi, Mystery & Horror” at 11:15 a.m., reading from Roachkiller and Other Stories during the open mic, and then I’ll be hawking some books, mostly copies of Latin@ Rising. Come see me and some of my excellent author pals, including Lucky Henry Chang and Auspicious Adriana Erin Rivera (Swing Sets).

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Latin@ Rising across Four Boroughs

This September I’ll be doing a series of events to help promote Latin@ Rising: An Anthology of Science Fiction and Fantasy. The book’s stalwart editor, Matthew David Goodwin, is flying into NYC from Puerto Rico and hitting four of the five boroughs, so many of the local-area writers from the collection will join him in events.

You can find out more about the book here, and Matthew discusses my short story here. The book began with a successful Kickstarter campaign before it was picked up by Wings Press. This Foreword Reviews article also gives a great overview of the book’s genesis.

All these are free and open to the public.

  • Edgar Allan Poe Park Visitor Center Reading and Q&A
    2640 Grand Concourse, Bronx, N.Y. 10458 | Saturday, September 16, 12-3 p.m.
    Scheduled participants: Matthew David Goodwin, Carl Marcum, Pedro Zagitt, and myself.
  • New York Society Library Panel
    53 East 79th Street New York, N.Y. 10075 | Sunday, September 17, 3 p.m. RSVP.
    Scheduled participants: Carlos Hernandez and Sabrina Vourvoulias will be there with Matthew and me.
  • LaGuardia Community College Reading and Q&A
    31-10 Thompson Avenue, Room E-242, Long Island City, Queens, N.Y. 11101 | Monday, September 18, 3-5 p.m.
    Scheduled participants: Matthew David Goodwin, Carl Marcum, and myself.
  • Word Bookstore Reading and Q&A
    126 Franklin St, Brooklyn, N.Y. 11222 | Tuesday, September 19, 7 p.m.
    Scheduled participants: Matthew David Goodwin, Carlos Hernandez, Carl Marcum, Sabrina Vourvoulias, Pedro Zagitt, and myself.


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