European crime fiction in the crosshairs
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Tunes from the past

Música para los muertos
Luis Gutiérrez Maluenda

Tropismos, 2007, 166 pages

Javier Sánchez Zapatero
Translation:

 

Connections between music and crime literature have been many and intense throughout history. From Sherlock Holmes's love of the violin to Kurt Wallander's enthusiasm for opera, via Boris Vian's two artistic sides or the continual appearance of elements of popular folklore in Manuel Vázquez Montalbán's or Jean-Claude Izzo's novels, there have been various authors who have linked their works with some musical piece or genre, even turning the name of a song into a book title, as in the very recent case of La neblina de ayer (Leonardo Padura) or Las pruebas de la infamia (Joaquín Leguina).

Without doubt jazz is the music that appears most closely associated with the crime novel. In fact the consolidation of both artistic forms occurred almost simultaneously in the USA of the 1930s, a disturbed period of upheaval when the American people attempted to combat the devastating atmosphere of crisis and corruption all around by taking refuge in the day-to-day pleasures of life, especially those that could be enjoyed in the small hours of the morning amid smoke, laughter and the flow of bourbon. The new and highly recommendable novel by Luis Gutiérrez Maluenda tells us about that agitated tormented world which awoke to read in the papers of political scandals and mafia attacks and turned in after listening to the jazz masters in clubs or reading the ‘hardboiled' detectives' latest adventure in the fashionable ‘pulps'.

The book's plot begins when Duke Ellington hires the services of Mike Vinowsky, a third-rate private investigator, to threaten a guy who is extorting money from Billy Strayhorn, the legendary Duke's composer, arranger and habitual collaborator. The detective – who, in the tradition of the genre's protagonists, appears as an ambiguous character able to stroll along the narrow margin of legality, combining cynicism and honesty – accepts the case, confident as to its apparent simplicity, impressed by the considerable sum of money offered by Ellington and motivated by needing to free from blackmail the composer of his favourite jazz number Take the A Train. The good signs start to fade when the blackmailer is found dead in strange circumstances hours after meeting Vinowsky, who is suspected by the police and so finds himself forced to clear up the case to demonstrate his own innocence and thereby ensure his freedom. In his continual search for truth the investigator becomes involved in a shady corruption case that leaves in its wake a long string of bodies and links the haunts of the New York slums with the offices of those representing the city's upper circles. This constant round allows Vinowsky to have a critical view of US society in the 1930s, showing that moral corruption is scarcely an observer of social classes and that the mansions of the powerful may be places that are as shadowy as the alleys of Harlem. The vision of reality is broadened by the clever inclusion in the novel of fragments and summaries of newspaper items of the period.

Like Walter Mosley's or James Ellroy's books, Música para los muertos manages to pay homage, in an interesting mannerist exercise, to the classics of the crime novel and update the narrative world that elevated Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler or Ross McDonald into the legendary class. The tone of the genre's legendary tales appears as intensely and constantly in the book as does jazz, which is present via the use as fictional characters of great masters such as Ellington or Strayhorn, the fleeting appearance of figures such as Lester Young, Charlie Parker or Dizzie Gillespie, the recreation of some of the period's most emblematic clubs, the use of jazz pieces as titles to all the chapters and the main character's huge love of music.

With a well-drawn main character – who is classical without tipping over into stereotype, contemporary without losing the genre's marks of identity – and a varied range of secondary characters, who are true to life and tremendously real, Música para los muertos is a magnificent novel, an entertaining and addictive read, ideal to take in with the soothing sound of Duke Ellington's piano in the background. And of course a good bourbon to hand.


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