Before the advent of online music, before CDs or cassettes, record albums reigned supreme when it came to listening to music. If you’ve ever been to a record store, you know what it’s like to flip through hundreds of albums to look for that special one you want. You know what it’s like to go in on the first day a new record by your idol comes out. Phonograph records have been around for over a hundred years, but LPs didn’t come out until 1934, when music pioneer RCA Victor began to make them. People loved the idea of listening to more than one song on the same recording, and it wasn’t long before record albums became popular. As with many things, vinyl’s become popular again (of course, some of us have loved it all along…).
With records being so much a part of the culture for such a long time, it’s not surprising that we see them providing background music in a lot of crime fiction. For instance, it’s not a major part of her work, but several Agatha Christie stories (I’m thinking, for instance, of Peril at End House) make mention of gramophones and records. There are a few mentions in some stories of pop music stars, too.
James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux isn’t exactly a music collector. But in Dixie City Jam, he gets to know a lot about vintage jazz records. In one plot thread, Robicheaux’s search for a missing WW II submarine has gotten the unwelcome attention of Will Buchalter, a neo-Nazi who doesn’t want the submarine found. Buchalter begins targeting Robicheaux and his wife, Bootsie, so Robicheaux starts to track him down. He’s notoriously elusive, though. In fact, the only clue Robicheaux has is that Buchalter is a collector of rare jazz recordings. In order to find Buchalter, Robicheaux visits New Orleans’ jazz musicians and promotors, jazz fans, music dealers, and others who have the information he needs.
Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch is also a fan of jazz. He’s got a collection of jazz record albums, cassettes, and CDs, and fans can tell you that music is woven through several of the Bosch novels. In The Black Box, for instance, there’s a scene where Bosch is doing some research on the death of a photojournalist. He’s looking through some online archives, and listening to part of an Art Pepper collection that his daughter Maddie has gifted him. The music itself isn’t a major part of the plot, but in that scene, there’s a discussion of Pepper’s music, his history, and one song in particular – Patricia – that really affects Bosch. It’s an interesting look at his music-loving side.
Ian Rankin’s John Rebus is also a lover of music. In his case, it’s rock music. He’s got a collection of vinyl, and often uses music as a curative. For instance, in Let it Bleed (if you’re a Rolling Stones fan, you know this is also the title of one of their releases), Rankin says this about Rebus:
‘After a drink, he liked to listen to The Rolling Stones. Women, relationships, and colleagues had come and gone, but the Stones had always been there…The guitar riff, one of easily half a dozen in Keith’s tireless repertoire, kicked the album off. I don’t have much, Rebus thought, but I have this.’
There is something about putting on a beloved album and waiting for that first magical measure.
Record stores reached a peak of popularity between 1950 and the 1980s. At first, of course, they only sold 45s and LPs. But then, with the advent of cassettes and then CDs, they began to include those formats, too. But vinyl, album cover art, and liner notes were always big attractions. We see some of that in Catherine O’Flynn’s What Was Lost. The story begins in 1984, when we meet ten-year-old Kate Meaney. She wants to be a detective; in fact, she has her own detective agency, Falcon Investigations. She spends as much time as she can at the newly opened Green Oaks Mall, where she is convinced she’ll find crime and criminals. When Kate goes missing, there’s a massive search for her, but she’s never found. Twenty years later, we meet Lisa Palmer, the younger sister of Kate’s friend Adrian. Lisa is the assistant manager of Your Music, which features albums along with other formats of music. She likes the music, but it’s a bit of a dead-end job. As we follow Lisa’s story, we slowly also find out what happened to Kate, and although the music store setting isn’t crucial to the plot, it’s a look at what record stores were like at the time.
And then there’s Colin Conway’s Cozy Up to Murder, the second of his Beauregard ‘Beau’ Smith novels. Smith is a former member of the Satan’s Dawgs motorcycle gang; as their ‘accountant,’ his job was to ‘take care of’ people who’d run afoul of the gang. He was caught and chose to testify against the gang in exchange for witness protection. In this novel, he’s given the name Owen Hunter, and becomes the owner of Rockafellas, a vintage record store in the coastal tourist town of Costa Buena, California. He wants to do his best to make his store a real success. But, among other challenges he faces, there’s another used music store, Headbangers, in the same area. Things start to sour when he and his rival have a disagreement about the artists and music that Rockafellas will carry. Then, his rival is murdered, and Hunter/Smith finds himself squarely in the picture as the prime suspect. He’s going to have to act fast to clear his name before the motorcycle gang tracks him down.
No matter what new technology comes on the scene, there’ll always be something about vinyl. If you have record albums you love, you know what I mean. Little wonder they’re popular again.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Captain Jack.