Crime and music seem so deeply intertwined in American culture, such natural thematic counterparts, that it is surprising that no one has had the idea of publishing an anthology like “Crime Plus Music” before. The two share, after all, a potent sense of outsider rebellion, a love of danger, an attraction to heat and violence. Now longtime rock critic and mystery novelist Jim Fusilli has collected 20 stories that mix up the two with abandon, and the result is an entertaining, if lightweight, exercise in expanding the boundaries of genre fiction.
For aficionados of the short story, the charm of this anthology is in seeing what angle each contributor will explore, what inventive taking-off point will be discovered. In some of the offerings, the intersections are glancing, at best, while others dive deep into the squalid and the violent. At their finest, they find vigorous points of connection between the two worlds, tapping into a vibrant emotional connection with verve and creativity. At their worst, they feel manufactured, tossed-off, little more than fodder from a creative-writing workshop.
Fully a quarter of the stories take their inspiration from the link between the music business and organized crime, natural enough given that rock-and-roll was practically a byword for unsavory, even criminal, business practices in its early years. In the opener, Peter Blauner imagines a down-and-out Frankie Lymon, undone by notorious industry bagman Morris Levy, whereas Fusilli’s closing entry depicts a techno prodigy who almost succumbs to the blandishments of an unethical promoter.
The story of the legendary, star-crossed Runaways is given a feminist twist in Naomi Rand’s “The Misfits.” A washed-up novelty singer refuses to do the bidding of his mafia overlords, with disastrous results, in Reed Farrel Coleman’s “Look at Me/Don’t Look at Me.” As Fusilli says in his foreword, “The clenched fist of fate gives some of the music world’s bad guys the cosmic beating they deserve.”
Some of the other stories stray from the formula, only to expand into parallel genre dimensions. Entries by Gary Phillips and David Corbett are endearingly pulpy lo-fi excursions into genre funkiness, turning sharply into the realms of the supernatural and science fiction. Val McDermid takes the Band classic “Long Black Veil,” which is pretty much a short story already, for a vivid ride with a clever twist to boot. And “Earworms,” by Zoë Sharp, takes a surprisingly disturbing and topical political turn, with music serving as an instrument of torture that “triggers a response on an elemental level — one against which we have no defense.”
At least two of the stories are near-masterpieces. Craig Johnson, author of the acclaimed “Longmire” series, contributes a beautifully understated vignette wherein his trademark protagonist, Walt Longmire, encounters a mysterious hitchhiker with a secret. Alison Gaylin’s “All Ages” uses a classic X song as a springboard for a pitch-perfect depiction of the trashy high-speed underworld of Los Angeles punk in the 1980s.
There’s plenty here to chew on for fans of rock-and-roll and crime fiction, and the book’s stories are so sprightly that if a few backfire, there is no lasting damage to the collection’s winsome high spirits. That said, it’s doubtful that many of these yarns, charming as they are, will stick in the mind for long. “Crime Plus Music” unwittingly becomes another exhibit in the long-running late-night conversations I have with like-minded friends: Why is genuinely great fiction about rock-and-roll so thin? (The witticism regarding “dancing about architecture” comes to mind — one that is attributed to Elvis Costello, whose song “Watching the Detectives” inspired a chilling entry here, by A.J. Hartley.)
Perhaps the two genres are too close to overlap efficiently. They risk crowding out each other’s attractions when combined too openly. Some great music — think of Tom Waits or Warren Zevon — approaches the spirit of noir as evocatively as any written word, while the best stories of Raymond Carver or Joyce Carol Oates can convey the desperate drive of great music without so much as mentioning an amplifier or a guitar. Maybe crime and music are not meant for a shotgun wedding, as it were, but rather to remain kissing cousins, circling each other warily, snarling, unruly and magnetic.
Michael Lindgren reviews books regularly for The Washington Post.
Edited by Jim Fusilli
Three Rooms. 400 pp. $19.95