In a Mellotone Rides Again!

I was delighted to be asked by Alf Mayer, editor of Germany’s top online crime magazine, CrimeMag, if I would become one of their regular monthly columnists. Under the general title, In a Mellotone (that’s one that goes back more than a few years), much of the material for the column (which will be in the original English, with an introduction in German) will be culled from this blog and its predecessor, Mellotone70Up, though the first entry is an article about writing western fiction that I wrote for Piccadilly Publishing, who are currently bringing out many of those early westerns as eBooks.

Along with LitMag and MusicMag, CrimeMag is published on line as part of the all-encompassing CulturMag.

Here’s In a Mellotone 1
http://culturmag.de/crimemag/kolumne-john-harvey-some-days-you-do-1/88795

And thinking of westerns, Piccadilly are about to publish California Bloodlines, number 9 in the 10 volume Hart the Regulator series, and originally published by Pan in 1981. The title is a reference, of course, to the late John Stewart.

This is how it begins …

The coffee was grey and lukewarm, tasted of beans that had been used too many times. Hart swished it around the inside of his mouth, trying to clear the stale taste of sleep and last night’s whisky. He threw what remained in the cup wide to his right, stood up and lifted the enamel pot from the side of the fire. When the grounds sprayed across it, the fire sizzled up in abrupt yellow and purple flames. Hart shook the pot a few more times before pushing it down into one of the saddle bags that lay on the ground.

The grey mare stood patiently as he slipped on the bride, patting her warm, broad nose. When he dropped the planet onto her back, she turned her head and nudged him playfully and he raised his hand, pretending anger – a game they played often. Finally, as he tightened the cinch beneath the saddle flap, she snickered nervously and he patted her again and said softly: ‘I know. I know. I seen ’em.’

The two riders made their way slowly along the southern side of the ridge, zigzagging through the cottonwoods. They rode without bothering to disguise their approach, single file, no more than ten yards between them. Hart recognised the leader from the previous night, a five-handed poker game with low stakes and little enough urgency. The man’s name was Cantrell and he owned a small spread in the Rio Lobo valley some fifteen miles to the west. There had been some desultory talk of offering Hart a job of work, but the rancher hadn’t been sure if her was serious or not and Hart hadn’t really wanted to to back to herding cattle and breaking broncs so it had petered out to nothing.

It had been one of those evenings.

Not too bad, actually, and surprisingly so. The stuff with the horse in the second paragraph just about gets by, which is okay for someone who’s only ever been on horseback the once, and never saddled a horse in his life. The third paragraph I quite like, it’s where the story gets going and has quite a nice rhythm to it – I can picture the scene clearly enough and its like something from an Anthony Mann movie.

That first paragraph, though … Sub-sub-Hemingway in the style of the Nick Adams stories, but not Hemingway enough. Rewriting it now, I’d take it down some …

The coffee was grey and lukewarm, tasting of beans that had been used too many times. Hart swished it around his mouth, clearing the stale taste of sleep and last night’s whisky. When he threw the grounds on the fire it sizzled up in purple and yellow flame.

That’s enough.

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iPod Shuffle, September 2015

 

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  • Susie’s Blues, Serge Chaloff : Blue Serge
  • Your Song, Elton John : Tumbleweed Connection
  • Cotton Tail, Duke Ellington : Highlights of the Great 1940-1942 Band
  • Give Us a Great Big Kiss, The Shangri-Las : Leaders of the Pack
  • Meet Mister Rabbit, Bob Wallis Storeyville Jazzmen : The Pye Jazz Anthology
  • Goin’ Home, Ken Colyer : New Orleans to London
  • Perfect Day, Lou Reed : Transformer
  • She Believes In Me, John Stewart : California Bloodlines
  • I’ll See You in My Dreams, Anita O’Day : Anita
  • Ad Lib Blues, Lester Young w. the Oscar Peterson Trio : The President Plays

Aside from the fact that there’s no Monk, this is pretty much a typical mix for my iPod to throw back at me, most usually when I walking mid-morning around Hampstead Heath. The first track is by my favourite baritone sax player (Joe Temperley being a close second) and comes from an album I’ve been playing on and off for years, first in vinyl and then on CD. “Cotton Tail” (or “Cottontail” if you prefer), with Ben Webster sweeping all before him on tenor, is one of those absolutely classic Ellington tunes, along with “Harlem Air Shaft”, “Concerto for Cootie”, “Jack the Bear”, “Ko-ko” and “In a Mellotone”, that are, to my mind, amongst the very greatest big band pieces ever recorded, and have been a staple for me as a fan and as a listener since I first came across them, which would have been somewhere in the mid-50s.

The two British tracks are both oddities in a way, at least as far as my usual listening is concerned. I was never a big fan of the Ken Colyer Band; his approach was too rigid in its fixation with old-fashioned New Orleans sound for my liking (though that didn’t prevent me from enjoying the hospitality of some all-nighters at the old 51 Club by Leicester Square) but there was always something about this tune (adapted from Dvorak, would you believe?) that’s always appealed to me, not least Ken’s vocal. This is the cream of the early cream outfit, by the way, with Chris Barber on trombone, Monty Sunshine on clarinet and Lonnie Donegan on banjo.

I once had breakfast in the same B&B as the Bob Wallis Band, the occasion being the Cleethorpes Jazz Festival of 1961; I was spending the summer working on a hot dog stall in the seaside town of Mablethorpe lower down the east coast and had nipped up there for the weekend. I always considered the Wallis band as second rate compared to other bands who rose to fame on the crest of the just-pre-rock ‘n’ roll Trad Boom, scorning the few minor pop hits they enjoyed courtesy of Wallis’s throaty versions of old music hall songs such as “Knocking ‘Em in the old Kent Road” and “I’m Shy, Mary Ellen, I’m shy”. The anthology of their work from which the track selected here – “Meet Mister Rabbit” – comes, however, suggests both a higher standard of musicianship and a broader repertoire than I would have believed – both due, to a great extent, I’m sure, to the presence of one of the most under-rated of British jazz musicians, Al Gay, who played tenor, clarinet and soprano with a number of bands from the 60s on, most notably several versions of the Alex Welsh Band. As the title suggests, “Meet Mister Rabbit” is a composition by Ellington’s alto player, Johnny Hodges, his nickname being Rabbit, and the Wallis band have a creditable go at recreating an Ellington/Hodges small band sound, with Al Gay outstanding on tenor.

What does that leave? The Anita O’Day track comes from an album simply called “Anita”, the original of which was one of the first few LPs I ever bought – 1956, possibly – I still have it, torn cover and all – with arrangements by Buddy Bregman featuring four trombones, and, as here, the guitar of Barney Kessel.

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John Stewart was an American singer-songwriter who was never quite folk (before his solo career, he was a long-serving member of the Kingston Trio), never quite country, and for a brief period, when he was produced by Lindsey Buckingham of Fleetwood Mac, almost, but never quite a Rock star. As I’ve stated elsewhere, I was introduced to Stewart’s work by the late Lawrence James, with whom I wrote, amongst other ventures, the Herne the Hunter western series. I was lucky enough to get to know Stewart a little during his many visits to this country and have always enjoyed him greatly, both as a writer and a performer. (Along with the television producer Colin Rogers – who produced the TV versions of the first two Resnick novels, back in 1992 – I had several discussions with Stwart about a  play I was writing which would feature, if not the man himself, then his music. Sadly, it came to nothing. My bad, as my younger daughter might say.)

Both the Lou Reed and the Elton John are perfect in their way. As for the Shangri-Las … Shadow Morton’s productions are like Douglas Sirk melodramas in under three minutes.

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Killing Them Softly …

“I’ve a bone to pick with you,” S. said. We hadn’t had time even to settle in our seats, shuck off our coats, never mind order the first glasses of prosecco. “Lynn Kellogg,” she said, “killing her off like that. How could you?”

She was not the first and quite possibly, as long as there’s an appetite for the Resnick books, of which Cold in Hand, in which I perform that unspeakable, inexplicable act, is the eleventh, she will not be the last.

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I hadn’t written a novel featuring Charlie Resnick for ten years; had imagined that number ten in the series, Last Rites, would be, well, Charlie’s goodbye. But then circumstances suggested I might write something in which I explored, to some degree, the experience of grief. Three good friends of mine, people with whom I had socialised and worked, to whom, over a period of years, I had become close, had died: Angus Wells, in tandem with whom I had written numerous pulp westerns – the Hawk and Peacemaker series under the pen name of William S. Brady, The Gringos as J. D. Sandon and The Lawmen as J.B. Dancer – and who had latterly come to live in Nottingham; David Kresh, the American poet, who was one of the American editors of Slow Dancer magazine, and who introduced me to areas of jazz – David Murray, The World Saxophone Quartet – I might otherwise have shied away from; and Charles Gregory, whom I first met when he was a visiting lecturer on the American Studies MA course I was following, and with whom I shared many conversations about movies, crime fiction and music – that of John Stewart and Richard Thompson especially – the best of them while sitting up to the bar behind shots of bourbon with water backs. In addition, I had recently read and been strongly affected by Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, in which she writes about the sudden death of her husband and the near death of her daughter.

Hence, a return to Resnick, the fictional character I knew best and the best through which to channel and explore those feelings, and, in order to do that, poor Lynn had to die.

“How could you?”

Quite deliberately, constructing the story line for the maximum effect. Centre the opening chapter around Lynn, making it clear her importance as a character, and in that chapter place her in mortal danger, a danger from which she escapes. Whew! That’s all right then.

Maintain that centrality, make the case she’s investigating more important than Resnick’s (This is the beginning, perhaps, of easing Resnick into the background, the role of observer which is largely his in the final novel, Darkness, Darkness.) And then, more or less midway through the novel – and out of the blue – actually the dark of night – throw in a sudden warning. Resnick has been sitting around at home, waiting for Lynn to return from London, passing the time sipping whisky, listening to Bob Brookmeyer – four minutes and twenty seconds of ‘There Will Never Be Another You’.

Through the music he heard the sound of a cab approaching along the narrow, poorly made-up road that led towards the house and a smile came to his face. In his mind’s eye, he saw Lynn leaning forward to pay the driver, exchanging, perhaps, a few words, before getting out and, as the cab drew away again, crossing towards the house. In a moment he would hear the faint clicking of the gate. The cat jumped down from his lap as he rose and moved towards the door.

At first he thought what he heard as he stepped into the hall was the sound of a car backfiring, then knew, in the same breath that it was not.

End of Part One. Title Page: Part Two. Which begins with chapter 22, in which I take us off to a new character, another police officer, Karen Shields, waking, slightly hungover, a hundred or more miles away in North London, close by the Essex Road. It isn’t until chapter 23 that we return to that night in Nottingham, moving backwards in time to find Resnick kneeling beside Lynn Kellogg’s body in the front garden of the house they had shared.

All designed to have the maximum effect on the reader. [What did Henry James call it? The architecture of the novel?] So that when someone says, as did S., still affected by it some six or seven years later, “How could you?”, I know.

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