Music in crime fiction: the insert of a lazy author, product placement or an often essential ingredient?
Let me qualify part of my position before I state it. Undoubtedly, how each person feels about music will influence where they fall on this issue. It would be exaggerating to say that every Ruttan is musical, but growing up it certainly seemed that way. For me it was piano, fiddle and bass guitar. (And have I mentioned Deric Ruttan has a new single due to hit airwaves soon? He’s co-written hits What Was I Thinkin’? and Lot of Leavin’ Left To Do with Dierks Bentley. The lead-off single for Deric’s new album? A Deric and Dirks duet called Good Time.)
But I digress. (That was product placement, btw. It did nothing to create atmosphere, was pure indulgence.) The main thing is, for me, there’s always been music. Having an appreciation of music, and how to play, gives you an interesting insight into writing. With music, there’s as much said in silence, in the breath between the notes, as there is with the notes themselves. Timing is a critical element. As a writer, I look to my musical knowledge to remind myself to give pause where appropriate.
As someone who loves music, I actually love musical references in books. So, perhaps I’m a wee bit biased…
This came up in one of those weird flukes of timing. Last night I watched the program on Peter Robinson that Evil Kev had recorded for me. When he was sitting on his couch talking, there were bookshelves behind him and right beside him was the prominent display of Ian Rankin books. (Not really surprising, but there is a point.) When he was in his office he was showing how he researches, and for one book that part of the story happens in 1969 he has books with pictures of the location from the era, and he had a collection of popular music from 1969 that he listened to.
Then, I stumbled across this post about Rankin and music at Detectives Beyond Borders. (Well, okay, I was over there to reference the post about Ken Bruen’s appearance on the Craig Ferguson show. Evil Kev had expressed surprise that nobody – none of the industry blogs – had even mentioned it, and he hadn’t seen any posts on the show, so I pointed out the two I had seen…)
So, it was complete coincidence on both sides of the equation that I ended up reading this old article on Rankin’s radio series, Music To Die For. A series I remember listening to.
In my opinion, the Telegraph article is bizarre. It begins by injecting what the writer would have liked to see. However, there’s no author name on the article, so I don’t know who it is expressing this opinion. One assumes it was a reporter…
But the words “sadly” and “vainglorious” put it squarely in the realm of editorial opinion (although it isn’t noted that way. Or even as a review of the program).
And I feel like taking issue with the statement It's true that Rankin's dominance of the British crime-fiction market is remarkable - he commands maybe 10 per cent of all sales - but then again this may be partly because the competition here is not so hot. The Americans do it better. Whoever wrote it, I wonder what the hell they’re on. Um, Martina Cole. Val McDermid. Stuart MacBride. Mark Billingham. Simon Kernick (a Richard and Judy summer read pick, which is the UK equivalent of Oprah). Ruth Rendell. PD James. Alexander McCall Smith. Denise Mina. What a loaded, unqualified opinion thrown in the mix of an article that’s supposed to be about music in crime fiction.
The article goes on to say, But the harder questions, such as whether the use of music is not sometimes just lazy piggybacking, if not product placement, and whether or not resorting to it so readily further suggests that crime fiction as a genre is condemned never to be much more than mood music itself, were not raised. The most original use of music in crime fiction wasn't mentioned either, the appearance of the Goldberg Variations, beautiful 'beyond plight and time', in The Silence of the Lambs.
Um, I actually listened to the program, and I distinctly remember Karin Slaughter mentioning thoughts on using music as a lazy way to convey emotion. Factual error is followed by another opinion, as I’ve seen no survey or pronouncement from some identified body of authority to suggest that the music he’s referring to is, in fact, considered the most original use of music in crime fiction.
And then the article goes into a summary of some other show with a “real music-inspired policeman,” which apparently makes his strong Christian roots and references valid.
Um, are you sort of sensing I didn’t like the article? No, not much. I write opinion as well as (and occasionally even better) than whoever penned that but I don’t have the audacity to stick it in a newspaper and try to validate it as relevant. What really bugs me, though, is how often people will read something like that and, because it’s in the Telegraph or whatever paper, consider it to have some authority, but I’ll steer away from that. I may have pissed off everyone else in the world this week, so I need someone to offend next week.
Getting back to the issue, let me answer my own question. Music in crime fiction: the insert of a lazy author, product placement or an often essential ingredient?
My answer? Yes and no, yes and no, and yes.
I want to be clear that this is a generalization. There are undoubtedly those who use musical references as a lazy way to set the mood. I can’t say off-hand that I have an example that comes to mind, but I’m sure this is true of someone, somewhere. Claiming otherwise would be silly when I haven’t read everything in the world.
I’m sure there are also those who use music as product placement, or in such a way that it comes off as product placement. I haven’t really experienced it coming off that way to me. In reality, I’m not keen on product placement. I’ll split hairs on it. This is part of what I stated recently on the subject on 4MA:
I consider the appropriate interests of a character before I put a book in their hands, or music on the stereo. Just because I like something, it doesn't mean it will be their thing. For example, it's not at all a commentary on quality but there's just no way either of my protagonists from SC would read Vicki Hendricks - Lara and Farraday are both a bit...reserved about sex.
There's a difference between product placement and pop culture references, and that's something else to consider. In all things, there's a degree of "know your audience". I suppose if you're targeting people who like fashion because you're writing a series of fashion designer murder mysteries, making multiple references to brand name shoes and clothes and designers would be appropriate. As a reader, I'd be lost, though, because I know nothing about that world. That is always the risk that you face when you decide to mention stuff.
I love musical references, and have bought albums/tried out artists solely from references in books. I love book references. I'm not crazy about fashion references, but I own fewer than nine pairs of shoes. And offhand I only know where three are - my regular shoes, my running shoes and my sandals. (A characteristic no doubt influenced by the fact that I partially severed my right foot as a child and actually am not supposed to wear most types of shoes.)
However, products might have a specific purpose. They may denote wealth or lack thereof. They may also reveal character. We might assume someone who drives a Ferrari is more vain than someone who drives a Pontiac Firefly. (Said with absolutely no intention of offending anyone here!) It may also reveal things about access. I've been up to the Arctic, and there are some things that simply aren't available locally that we might take for granted. In a book if someone was missing and a search of their house revealed items that locals typically wouldn't have, it could be significant to developing the case. I'm trying to think of a good example but my head's blank - suffice to say that if a search of a home in Inuvik revealed a recent Canadian Tire receipt and there was no indication this person had been away recently, it might indicate they'd had a visitor who may have had something to do with their disappearance.
But even then, it would be delicate to use clues such as that, because unless you've been there maybe you wouldn't understand the significance. (And even those of us who've been there are left wondering what new stores they might have since I last visited. I mean, I can remember when Muskoka had NO McDonald's. Then Bracebridge got one... And eventually Gravenhurst. Referencing a stop at McDonald's in Gravenhurst automatically dates the book in my head, because it opened in 1989.)
On the subject of dating the work... Just about everything is dated, in some capacity. Cities grow or decline over time. Women today are able to hold different jobs than they were hired for fifty years ago. When I read something set in the 50s references to places/products that were common then establish the setting. And that actually communicates a lot to a reader. The world wasn't the same September 5, 2001 as it was September 12, 2001. One week and a world of difference. The timing communicates far more to the reader in a case like that - it carries with it fears and uncertainties, etc. Works that are timeless are not ones that don't have a sense of the era they're set in, but ones that reflect issues/concerns that are relevant to people as much today as they were whenever.
One other thing. There may be references that have some significance to the setting. If someone here is going for coffee there's probably as much chance they're going to Tim Hortons as Starbucks. (Okay, I don't know what share each company has of the market, because I hate coffee, but I know a lot of coffee drinkers who love Tim Hortons.)
For me, this is one of those things there are no hard and fast rules on. If it's the protagonist's car knowing more details (make, model) might make sense. It may also make sense to know something about the suspect's vehicle if it's significant to the story. A person's choice of vehicle might also indicate how easy it would be to identify it. You drive a red Honda Civic you won't stand out much, but if you're driving a gold Porsche you'll be easier to find.
So...in one book the references might work for me perfectly. In another, they might not work at all.
I can’t honestly say I remember reading anything that felt forced with regards to musical references. The truth, for me, is that music is something I consider important. Walk down the average street past houses and you’ll hear the faint (and sometimes not-so-faint) murmur of music from inside. People listen to music when they’re driving, many people wake up to music with alarm clock radios. Kids have Discmans and iPods. Almost every place I’ve ever worked has had music playing in the background or used music in the program.
In some respects, music is the international language. When you hear a song that’s heartwrenching you often don’t need to understand the words to know it’s sad. Here in the real world, music does invoke mood. That’s a reality. If I’m in a certain mood, where I could go either way, choosing to listen to sad music may make me cry and choosing to listen to something upbeat may get me out of my melancholic state.
To be honest, with music being as important to people as it is, I find it hard to fathom characters that never intersect with music. They never listen to anything on the radio when driving. They never turn on the stereo when at home. They notice a house/suspect/location/suspicious vehicle and remember intricate details about it but never walk through a neighbourhood and notice the music. That seems a bit unrealistic to me. Even if it isn’t something they ‘know’ or ‘like’ why not reference the noise pollution emanating from the neighbour’s house? You noticed their flower bed.
To me, this is where balance comes in. It’s all about what else is in the book. If the character is the type to notice and reference everything in detail, then I would expect music to be there. If the character’s a music fan, I’d expect it as well. There’s no one right amount of references that work – it will vary story to story, character to character, author to author.
One thing I do find curious is when someone says that the character’s musical tastes don’t fit the character as they see them. I suppose it’s fair as a personal observation. But one of the things I enjoyed Peter Robinson saying was that he’d given Banks eclectic music tastes because his own musical interests were diverse. I think that’s true of a lot of people. We all have some degree of range. Some who read here are crime fiction fans solely. Others are sci fi and fantasy fans first. Some like horror. Others don’t. If we can have range in our reading, why not range in what we listen to?
In reality, I don’t see how music can be carte blanche labeled as a cop-out for creating emotion. There’s a lot that goes into the atmosphere that tells us how a person is feeling. Music might be one component, but it’s only one component. In books it comes nowhere near being the substitute for acting that it often is on TV.
To me, anyway, music is natural atmosphere. A moment ago I was listening to someone working with power tools a few yards over. Not so long ago, it was my own dog, demonstrating his vocal skills. Right now, silence. If you step outside and hear Eminem blasting, or if you hear birds chirping, or if you hear nothing at all it might all be relevant as one component in establishing the setting. That silence might be coupled with houses with all the windows covered, and although it’s 4 pm and kids should be outside playing there’s nothing but a ball rolling across the yard, blown by the wind. Gives you a sense that something isn’t right. People perhaps hiding in fear. In another scenario, someone might be listening to some loud rap music and one of their crew tries to whistle a warning to them, but they can’t hear it because of the music so they get caught by the police or another drug dealer they’re beefing with…
It’s writing to our ears. And we talk all the time about writing to senses, about not just showing but letting the reader taste, hear, touch, smell when appropriate.
In my opinion, it doesn’t matter whether or not I like the music. It’s part of giving a picture of a scene, a person, a mood. Used as such, I think it’s tremendously effective.
Incidentally, I heard Rankin on a radio program a few years ago and as a result heard The Blue Nile and Jackie Leven, and loved their stuff. The Blue Nile’s album High is one you can get lost inside and Jackie Leven is a poet.