It’s a crime

Agatha Christie plays to her husband, Max Mallowan

October 2020 marks the centenary of the publication of Agatha Christie’s first novel, The mysterious affair at Styles. Not only did it mark the entrance of one of the world’s most famous literary detectives, Hercule Poirot, but it catapulted the author, who was soon to be known as the Queen of Crime onto the literary scene. The Golden Age of Detective Fiction (as it is often termed) had arrived. As an aficionado of crime fiction, I couldn’t let the anniversary pass without celebrating it.

Thinking about the genre, I was surprised by how important a part music plays, whether it’s giving insights into the character of the protagonists, or an important part of the author’s life. Agatha herself uses music sparingly. This is perhaps a little surprising, as she had a musical background, and, indeed at one point, had hopes of becoming a concert pianist. Unfortunately though, her shyness overcame any hopes of making a living from performing in public. She did however compose a number of short pieces. When she does use music in her novels though, it is always important, even though the reader may not realise it at the time.

In Hercule Poirot’s Christmas, music provides three alibis – for David and his wife – while David plays Mendelssohn to his wife in the music-room, and then (rather more alarmingly) the Dead March, presumably from Saul, which precipitates his wife’s move to her father-in-law’s room, where she overhears the murder. Meanwhile, another member of the family listens to music on the gramophone, which is also heard by most of the staff in the servants’ hall. In Christie, music is often associated with innocence (though in the interests of avoiding spoilers, this may or may not be the case in this particular novel). The use of music here though also announces that this novel is very much in the style of the classic Christie country house mystery. Where else would you have a room dedicated solely to music, or a servants’ hall to overhear the gramophone? Here, music plays an essential part in the setting of the novel.

In Endless Night, one of her best psychological thrillers, music is used rather differently, where it marks the innocence of the victim, who sings a setting of Byron’s doom-laden poem. This was set to music by Bernard Herrmann for the 1972 film of the same name. It’s rather ironic that the sole YouTube video that I can find of the song is sung by Shirley Jones, who at the time of recording was married to actor, Jack Cassidy. Cassidy would play murderers no less than three times in the Columbo murder mystery TV series.

Among other crime writers of the Golden Age, music also played an important part in the writing of Dorothy L. Sayers. Her hero, Lord Peter Wimsey, ex-Oxford (like his creator, though her father was a vicar, for much of his career, in Cambridgeshire) is never happier than when playing Bach on the piano, or investigating murder most foul among London’s Bohemian community, who in between discussing politics and avant-garde painting like nothing better than to play Czechoslovakian (or occasionally Hungarian) music (Sayers evidently thought both were very exotic) while discussing the death throes of Western music, and new approaches to harmony. Sayers certainly uses music to enforce concepts of character, and sense of place; but she was not as musical as Christie, and this, I think, is fairly clear from her writing.

One of my favourite crime writers, who came in towards the tail end of the British Golden Age is Edmund Crispin. His detective, Gervase Fen, despite his East Anglian sounding surname, was a Professor at Oxford. Crispin, whose real name was Bruce Montgomery, led two lives. One was as a crime novelist. In his other life he was a composer and conductor, and wrote scores for many British films during the 1950s and ’60s, most notably for the early Carry On‘s. He even has a brief cameo role in Raising the wind, a comedy about life at a conservatoire, partly filmed at the Royal College of Music, where he can be seen conducting a student orchestra.

Prior to his film work, he had composed a number of works of church music, and a few operas, amongst a much larger output. His archive can now be found at the Bodleian Library. As the film world opened up to him, his art music output decreased. This was not entirely due to the large amount of film work that he was undertaking. Montgomery was also still crime writing busily, and he had health problems too, that contributed to the steady decline in his “serious” work.

It’s gloriously funny, but his posthumous novel The glimpses of the moon, made me wonder about how he felt as his music career changed path. I know, from working in his archive, how composer William Alwyn struggled to balance the demands of the lucrative world of the cinema against what he felt to be his real art, and I was reminded of this, when reading about Crispin’s composer character, Broderick Thouless. A soulful musician, who loved to write songs (currently working on settings of Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses); a lucky break scoring for a big budget monster film has left Thouless constantly providing the backing track for zombies, or, as Bruce Montgomery as Edmund Crispin describes it:

By nature and inclination a gentle romantic composer whose idiom would have been judged moderate by Saint-Saens or Chaminade, Thouless had launched himself at the task of manufacturing the Bone Orchard score…and by over compensating for his instinctive mellifluousness had manged to wring such hideous noises from his orchestra that he was at once assumed to have a flair for dissonance, if not a positive love for it.

Reading about Thouless’ problems got me wondering – was Thouless based on Montgomery? Could he have been thinking about Alwyn? Was this section referencing Liz Lutyens? Or none / all of the above? That he knew the film music world well there is no doubt, from the affectionate mentions of Shepperton studios and everyone’s favourite percussionist – James Blades (the man behind the Rank gong):

And then there was one part where I got Jimmy to put the xylophone down on its side and play tremolandos on the resonators – unspeakable that was. I can’t remember anything nastier I’ve done except for those sickening wailing violin harmonics in Thing of Things.”

As far as I know, none of his detective stories, despite their ingenuity ever made it to the cinema screen, unlike his music. Part of his most famous novel The moving toyshop however was filmed, although he received no onscreen credit. The climax of Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a train is not the climax of the Patricia Highsmith novel, it is actually the close of Moving toyshop, virtually unchanged. Just prior to Strangers on a train, Hitchcock had been in London, where Stage Fright was filmed, it seems likely that around this time he had read the latest Edmund Crispin, and when a change to the ending of Strangers on a train was called for, the Moving toyshop climax was utilised. I hope Montgomery was paid for it. I do wish that he had been credited; but it does seem most appropriate that the scene is dominated by the increasingly manic music of the carousel.

The Moving Toyshop scene at the close of Hitchcock’s adaptation of Strangers on a train

Music continues to play an important part in crime novels – what sort of a detective would Morse be without his love of opera?

Robert Galbraith’s Cormoran Strike novels use music constantly in giving a sense of place, and providing further insights into characters. Fans have become so fascinated by this, that J.K. Rowling aka Robert Galbraith even provided a full list of songs cited in Lethal White to the New York Times (there’s more information on them here). Earlier novels in the series also had many musical mentions, with many of the chapter headings for Career of Evil being taken from the back catalogue of rock band Blue Oyster Cult.

Crime writer and creator of Rebus, Ian Rankin, clearly loves his music. As a young man, he was a punk rocker and aspiring musician. Many of the titles of his novels are taken from his favourite tracks including several Rolling Stones numbers such as Let it bleed, and Black and Blue. The latter proved to be his breakthrough novel, and featured stadium-filling band, The Dancing Pigs, adored throughout the world. The band’s name was taken from Rankin’s own teenage band, who had finally made it, thanks to the power of the author’s own imagination.

From Sherlock Holmes’ violin to death at the opera with Donna Leon, music and literary crime seem to have been inextricably linked. Long may the partnership continue.


About mj263

Music Collections Supervisor at Cambridge University Library. Wide musical interests. Often to be found stuck in a composer's archive, or enthusing about antiquarian music.
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2 Responses to It’s a crime

  1. Patricia Yeiser says:

    Why are there so few mysteries written about Cambridge? Is the murder rate lower there?


    • mj263 says:

      I suspect the murder rate may be on the increase as there’s a growing number of fictional crimes set in Cambridge and the surrounding countryside! See, for example, Elizabeth George, Clare Chase and the first of Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie novels. Past crimes set in Cambridge include works by Glyn Daniel and Margery Allingham. Tthe house that I think the murder scene was based on in Police at the Funeral in Trumpington Road is still there.


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