Thursday, July 24, 2008

Mystery of the Blues

Sweet Man Is Gone
Peggy Ehrhart
Five Star Publishing

I'm not much in the way of a literary critic, but I do like a good mystery and I do like reading about blues. So, when Peggy Ehrhart sent me a copy of her blues mystery, Sweet Man Is Gone, I looked forward to escaping into both of those worlds and Peggy proves that she has a knack and knowledge for the genres, both literary and musical. I know blues music well enough to spot someone who writes with reference books at their elbows versus having a knowledge bank based in experience and I have a pretty good bluff meter for those professing to know the music. I've read enough mysteries to at least know what I'm looking for in the area of a suspenseful tale. Peggy's got it down on both accounts.

According to the book's jacket blurb, Peggy Ehrhart is a former college English professor and she plays blues guitar. Her website,, sheds additional light on both of those sets of credentials that drives the success of this story that revolves around Maxx Maxwell, who is trying to get her band, Maxximum Blues, off the ground. A major complication to this goal arises when her lead guitar player turns up dead on the cement below his apartment window. When his death is ruled as a suicide, Maxx is having none of it and sets out to find out just who threw Jimmy Nashville from his window. Hence, the mystery tale is set and Ehrhart weaves a fine story based around the blues music world in New York City and a string of well drawn characters that inhabit that network. Ehrhart's attention to detail proves that she has been around the practice rooms frequented by the denizens of this sub-culture of not only blues folks, but of the myriad of musicians from every genre that is trying to leave their mark. She also gives plenty of knowledgeable evidence that she knows her way around a stage as she leads Maxx through her paces singing on the bandstand. She throws out just enough song titles of blues standards that Maxx sings to show the reader that the band's goal is to keep the music traditional. She gives enough examples of Maxx's listening habits to let us know that her affinity for the music is for real.

Maxx is certainly a believable character wrapped up in trying to establish a music career. Ehrhart has her balancing the trials of trying keep a band together and moving in the right direction, working as waitress to help achieve and support her goal and solving the mystery of what happened to her guitarist. Female readers will identify with her, not as a musician, but as a female. Choices in clothing, makeup, jewelry, and men are all a continuous thread confronting her. Maxx's Achilles' heel is good looking guitar players and the story opens with her on the rebound from losing one of those loves and the possibility that she could just fall for Jimmy Nashville--until he fell. Maxx's bandmates have just enough conflict going amongst themselves that adding the loss of the lead guitar player could just be the straw that Maxx is intent on not breaking--by finding a replacement that can carry that load. The internal conflicts will be readily recognized by anyone who's been in a band.

Ehrhart's mystery works very well and she drops the right number of hints and twists along the way to keep the interest level high and the reader in suspense, like good mysteries should. The book should appeal to not only blues fans, but anyone who enjoys a good mystery and has a hankering for a tenacious female detective, who can belt them out like Etta James. Sweet Man Is Gone is a great read and it'll add a little insight for those that don't know the blues and be mighty interesting to those that do. Anyway--


HTownFess said...

There's a series of mysteries by Ace Atkins whose protagonist Nick Travers plays blues harp. I don't like them that much: there's no sense that the author even knows how to play music, let alone harmonica, and there's a tendency toward blues myth/lore like going to the crossroads, etc. presented non-ironically. The protagonist is much more convincing as ex-NFL, not surprising since Atkins played college ball. The plots will keep you going, though the turns are usually triggered by Nick Travers doing something remarkably dumb.

Not harp-centric, but irreverently bluesy, is Greg Kihn's novel Mojo Hand. Yeah, that Greg Kihn, here impersonating Kinky Friedman. His protagonist is a sideman for a legendary harp player whose oldtime musical cronies suddenly start turning up murdered. A guitarist who looks just like Johnny Winter may be channelling Robert Johnson, and has to be vetted by a band that looks just like the Rolling Stones before he can claim blues preeminence. Kihn is a rock guy, but at least he's a musician and doesn't take things too seriously. A funny book.

Walter Mosley's RL's Dream is the best blues-oriented read I've seen from a mystery writer. Mosley focuses on Mississippi in this book, IIRC, but he clearly understands the classic 1940s-1950s Houston-LA blues connection (South Central LA was left empty when Japanese-Americans were interned, and southern blacks were recruited to work in the war industry and settled there, with Houston being a major departure point for that relocation).

It looks like an Australian writer named Alison Goodman had a hit with a young adult novel titled Singing the Dogstar Blues, a "sci-fi/mystery/thriller/satire" whose young female protagonist plays harmonica. I haven't read it, but am curious.

Authors go out on a limb when they put blues music in a book. You can tell who plays and who just works the cliches.

Ricky Bush said...

Hey 'Fess--

Yeah, I've read a couple of the Atkins books and wasn't really taken by them either. Mosley's just a good writer--period and I enjoyed RL's Dream. I'll have to check out the Mojo Hand novel. There are plans around here to inch out on that limb that you mention (at some point). Anyway.

See ya--