Crime Beat

 

The mystery community is infested with drummers.

 

I thought I had a unique angle. I thought that being a rock drummer who published crime fiction would set me apart from the crowd. I was very wrong.

You can’t swing a dead cat without hitting a crime-writing musician these days. Ian Rankin fronts an Indie rock band called Best Picture. Lee Child recently teamed up with the songwriting duo Naked Blue to co-write a Jack Reacher-inspired album. There’s even a crime fiction super group in the U.K. called the Fun Lovin’ Crime Writers featuring Val McDermid, Mark Billingham, Chris Brookmyre, Stuart Neville, Luca Veste and Doug Johnstone.

Just to name a few.

All of this has been on mind lately for a couple reasons. The first is the “Writer’s Who Rock” panel I was part of at Bouchercon in St. Petersburg, Florida, earlier this year. Looking down the microphone-lined table that day, I realized that three of us were drummers. 

The second reason is that I was recently in the studio to record an album with some friends for a garage-y power pop project. It’s been a few years since I recorded a full album’s worth of material in one sitting. The combination of stress, excitement and raw energy never ceases to amaze.

Whether it’s at a professional studio with all the trappings of major label legitimacy, or a carpet-covered rehearsal space with a few banged up mics, there’s a certain magic that happens when you hit the record button. This latest session was no exception. I can’t wait to share that music with you sometime in 2019.

Between far-flung recording sessions I turned my attention to crime fiction, publishing three books in the Greg Salem punk rock P.I. series starting in 2015. That trilogy—including BAD CITIZEN CORPORATION, GRIZZLY SEASON and HANG TIME is set in a heavily fictionalized version of the SoCal beach towns where I grew up, and draws on my experience recording and touring with bands over the last three decades.

Aspiring authors are often told to write what they know, but the collision of percussion and prose goes much deeper for me. I joined my first real band when I was 16-years-old, a C student in a band with three brainy punks. We hadn’t been playing together very long when the lead guitarist handed me a Kurt Vonnegut book at a rehearsal. I was too embarrassed to tell him that I never really read for fun, so I took the book and gave it a try. 

My life changed over night. Suddenly I was reading a book or two week and spending as much time at bookstores as I did at record stores. Books and music have been inextricably linked for me ever since. These days, Don Winslow is probably my favorite crime author. As for drummers, I’ve always loved Keith Moon of The Who.

It might have come as a shock that I wasn’t the only drummer in the crime fiction community, but it’s also nice to know I’m not alone.

“I started reading mysteries when I was about six and was hooked for life. I was hooked on music around the same time, but it wasn’t until I started constantly tapping out beats at the age of eleven that I fell in love with drumming,” said Nadine Nettmann. “I finally got a kit when I was fourteen and it steamrolled from there.”

These days, Nettmann pens the award-nominated Sommelier Mystery Series including DECANTING A MURDER, UNCORKING A LIE and PAIRING A DECEPTIONHer favorite crime authors are Sue Grafton and Daphne du Maurier. Her favorite drummer is Ringo Starr.

“I’m a lifelong fan of the Beatles as my dad had all of their vinyl albums and I grew up listening to them along with that beautiful crackle on the record player. I loved how Ringo was a little goofy, and a little not. I related to him,” she said.

Although Nettmann hasn’t created any drumming characters to date, she always listens to music while writing. A few of her favorite artists to write to include Tom Petty and Jason Isbell, although the style of music changes from day to day.

“When I read back my pages during copy edits or the finished book, the song I wrote to during that particular scene always plays in my head,” she said.

Like Nettmann, drumming crime author Jonathan Brown got started early on both music and reading. Brown currently writes the Lou Crasher series including THE BIG CRESCENDO and DON’T SHOOT THE DRUMMER. The series revolves around a Canadian drummer who becomes an amateur P.I. while living in Los Angeles. Brown’s favorite author is Raymond Chandler. His favorite drummer is Billy Cobham.

Brown rarely writes without listening to music, but it’s usually limited to classical or rock ‘n roll. The genre he chooses is often dictated by the mood of the scene he’s working on. When it comes to the final product, Brown has very high standards.

“Rhythm kicks in when I read my stuff out loud. If it doesn’t groove like James Brown’s rhythm section and rock like a Led Zeppelin track then I know the rhythm needs tweaking,” he said.

Another percussive crime author is Bill Loehfelm, who fell for music because of Billy Joel and crime fiction because of James Lee Burke. Loehfelm is the author of the critically acclaimed Maureen Coughlin series about a New Orleans police officer including THE DEVIL SHE KNOWS, THE DEVIL HER WAY and THE DEVIL’S MUSE.

Burke and Billy Joel’s drummer, Liberty DeVito, are still all-time favorites of his, but the list gets really long from there.

Mystic River by Dennis Lehane was my Beatles on Ed Sullivan moment. It’s the book that made me want to be a crime novelist. That book, Cheap Ticket To Heaven by Charlie Smith, and Dope by Sara Gran. But Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie series is huge for me,” Loehfelm said. 

“All time favorite drummer isn’t much easier. I love John Bonham (Led Zeppelin), and Charlie Watts (The Rolling Stones) is the drummer I try hardest to emulate. If I had to pick one name though, I’d have to give the edge to Steve Gorman of the Black Crowes.”

Which brings us back around to Doug Johnstone of the Fun Lovin’ Crime Writers. He’s penned nine novels including FAULT LINES, THE JUMP, GONE AGAIN and HIT & RUN. He is also a singer, musician and songwriter in several bands, including Northern Alliance, who have released four albums to critical acclaim. His favorite crime author is James Sallis. His favorite drummer is Neil Peart of Rush.

“I see a lot of crossover between fiction and music. I steal from songs all the time for my fiction—snippets of lyrics for titles, and more—and I’ve written books based around music,” Johnstone said.  “I don’t really seem them as separate things at all.”

Like the other authors featured here, Johnstone does listen to music when he writes but it has to be ambient or instrumental. That includes artists like Johann Johannson, Clint Mansell, Jon Hopkins, Boards of Canada and Mogwai.

“Good writing always has a good flow to it, so I guess on some level being a drummer helps with that, the sense of balance and poise in the language. It’s not conscious, but it’s definitely in there somewhere,” he said.

Like I said, the mystery community is infested with drummers, but given the quality of their fiction I’d say that’s probably a good thing. Maybe it’s time to finally start the U.S. version of the Fun Lovin’ Crime Writers. Problem is, we might have a few too many drummers.

S.W. Lauden is the Anthony Award-nominated author of the Tommy & Shayna novella, CROSSWISE, and the sequel, CROSSED BONES. His Greg Salem punk rock P.I. series includes BAD CITIZEN CORPORATIONGRIZZLY SEASON and HANG TIME. He is also the co-host of the Writer Types crime, mystery and thriller podcast. Steve lives in Los Angeles.