Thursday, March 10, 2016

Swing: A Review

NOTE: This review originally appeared on

Swing: A MysterySwing: A Mystery by Rupert Holmes
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Do you love classic mysteries with a noir feel? Do you love swing and big band music from the 1930s and 40s? If so, you'll love Swing. Rupert Holmes, composer of "Escape: The Pina Colada Song" and creator of the TV series "Remember WENN," turns his talents to mystery writing and delivers a smart, well-crafted, novel that combines music, mystery, and murder in an ingenious and absorbing way.

Like many members of the Jack Donovan Orchestra, a lesser-known big band from America's swing era, Ray Sherwood is a man with secrets, regrets, and a past he'd like to forget. However, as one of the band's saxophonists and its principal arranger, he gets along all right. In San Francisco for a gig in the fall of 1940, Ray figures his luck might be changing for the better when he's approached by Gail Prentice, a lovely and talented Berkeley coed, with a job offer: arrange her avant garde piano composition "Swing Around the Sun" for a jazz ensemble in time for its first public performance by a Japanese swing band at an international exposition in San Francisco.

Almost from the moment Ray agrees to take the job, however, strange and increasingly sinister things start to happen. A young French Jewish woman, who had proposed marriage to Ray just moments before, in order to avoid returning to her Nazi-occupied homeland, plunges to a grisly death from the top of a bell-tower. Or does she? A strange figure resembling the dead woman reappears at crucial moments and seems to be shadowing Ray and Gail. Gail herself disappears to make unexplained phone calls and apparently writes incriminating letters. She then denies it or contrives a patently false explanation. Who is she talking to and why?

Gradually, Ray is drawn more and more tightly into a web of lies, conspiracies, espionage, intrigue, and murder involving both American Nazi sympathizers and agents of imperial Japan. Eventually, Ray is presented with the stunning possibility that Gail may actually be his long-lost daughter, the result of a one-night stand almost twenty years earlier. Is Gail really Ray's daughter? Is she a pawn in a spy ring or a willing accomplice? Is "Swing Around the Sun" really an elaborately coded musical message designed to pass vital information about national defense to America's enemies? The answers to these questions will help Ray come to terms with his past and have vital implications for America's future as the nation stands on the brink of entry into World War II.

This book is more than just a crackerjack murder mystery and spy story. It's also a multimedia experience. The hardcover edition includes a CD of several original compositions by Holmes, both instrumental and vocal, in the big band style, that are referred to in the book, and may even provide alert listeners with clues to the solution of the mystery. The audio version, available through the library-based digital media service, Hoopla, integrates the songs into the story at appropriate points. I listened to it at a clip because once I got far enough in, I just couldn't switch off my smartphone. In the words of one of the songs this, "myst'ry with musical diction . . . speaks to me." I hope it speaks to you too.

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