Jazz and the Art of the Detective Novel

John Coltrane and Lee Morgan improvise


I love jazz.

From Dixieland to Django to Miles and Monk, from Coltrane and Bill Evans to Herbie and Chick, I love it all.  As a kid I found a stack of 78s my dad had purchased. I heard Count Basie, Lester Young, Louis Armstrong, and even Big Bill Broonzy sing about movin’ to the outskirts of town.

Yeah, I listened to jazz as a child, a young adult, and right now while writing this blog. When I was writing DRINK THE TEA, I discovered something: that jazz and detective novels have a lot in common.

You could be reading “Hard Revolution,” a Derek Strange novel by George Pelecanos. Or Chandler’s “The Big Sleep.” Or Hammett or Willeford or Lawrence Block.

The “who” of what you’re reading doesn’t matter.

What matters is the “how.”

The delivery system.

I’m talking about an American invention – the private eye story, and how it gets written.  Baltimore is the birthplace of Hammett, and also a lad named Poe. In 1841 Poe dreamed up the first private eye in his “Murders in the Rue Morgue.” Creating the first detective story is kind of like creating a new kind of musical instrument.

But the history doesn’t matter as much as the form, the delivery system. How do the books get written? And the form is jazz.   I’ve only been on book tours a short time, yet many folks seem interested in how I wrote DRINK THE TEA. The process. Did I use an outline? That gets asked a lot. And I always give the same answer — no.

I think outlines are great, I just stink at making them. And the writers I named above have written books without outlines.

How is that possible? Because telling a story is a way of thinking. And the more you do it, the better at it you get.

Now think about this: jazz is an American art form. For years it was our only music that didn’t stem from European traditions. And jazz is spontaneous.  Jazz is improv. Jazz is creation in real time. Jazz is extemporaneous.

Jazz is.

And that is why I listed the writers above — these guys improv their way through the telling of their story.

Chandler freely admittedly that plot was not his strongest point. In THE BIG SLEEP he never names Owen Taylor’s killer. And Chandler gives all of us writers an invaluable tool: if a scene starts to drag, have a guy walk in holding a gun.

The great private eye writers improv their way through the telling of their story. And that’s why detective stories are a kind of jazz. Because jazz and the detective story are both American art forms, and both improvisational.

Now, in a song you have chord structure, harmonic melody.   These are like the rules of the song. And just as you need to know the rules of a playground to ave a good time there, the musician needs to know the limits. Even if s/he intends to overstep the limits, it’s good to know what they are.

A detective novel is part of the mystery genre. It too has rules. You break them at your peril.  What are the rules? Not that many. There’s a crime, perhaps a murder. The detective gathers clues and speaks to suspects. By the end the blame is placed on the guilty party.

There are endless variations, but those are the basic expectations of anyone who reads the genre. Like jazz, the detective novel is a fun place to play. It’s fun to make things up as you go along.

And it’s good to know the rules.

Why My Mom’s Amazing

I love my mom, who is 92.   She visited us for thanksgiving and had a stroke on the right side of her brain.  I’ve spent the last few days with her at the hospital, and I’m amazed at how resilient she is.

She was in the “rapid response” team of Washington Hospital Center, and they did a great job of keeping her alive.

This is after two days of ER treatment.  My mom is strong enough to survive even that!

They had her in a room with three other patients, and there was a guy next to her who was having trouble.  My mom was asleep, she had been woken every two hours by the nursing staff, taking her vital signs and asking penetrating questions like do you know what day it s? (Correct answer: No, and at three in the morning I don’t give a good goddam.)

So she’s finally asleep, I’m sitting beside her, and they lift the guy next door off his bed, which triggers the bed alarm (no one though to disconnect it first) and my mom wakes up, looks around, sees me and says, “This isn’t exactly the Ritz, is it?”

“No, I say.

She chin-points to the source of the alarm .  “And how about that wake-up call?”

Not much, I admit.  But I do think my mom’s amazing.


Eddie Harris and Les McCann – Swiss Movement

Back when dinosaurs ruled the earth, I was studying film production at the University of Southern California.  At that time, I wanted to double major, with a minor in music.


I wanted to play bass in Frank Zappa’s band, but felt I could never be that good.  But I did love to play jazz and rock, and I think every single person in my dorm, if they had one jazz album, had Swiss Movement.

This album was recorded live at the Montreux Jazz Festival, and the song “Compared to What” became a kind of anthem for us kids in the mid-1970’s.

Last week was the birthday of Eddie Harris, and it brought back all kinds of memories for me to hear that music once more.  And that made me think of memory cues, how sights and smells and sounds can trigger our thoughts and jog our brains until we are in the dorm room once more, on the 11th floor, looking out at the flat wasteland that was just south of downtown LA, and wondering where life would take us.

How about you?  What acts as a trigger for your memory?


The Blog of TK

Why do I do my best writing on other people’s blogs? Here’s where I went this summer, and many thanks to the cool sites that hosted my rantings:

Guest-Blogging Tour

 There’s blogging, and there’s a blog tour. This summer I toured bookstores all over the US, but I’ve also been guest blogging on the net.  Here’s a list where you can find me:

July 1

Barnes & Noble Mystery Book Club


July 3



July 5

Allison Leotta


July 7

International Thriller Writers


July 8



July 9

Gelati’s Scoop


July 11



July 13

Lesa’s Book Critiques


July 14

Criminal Minds


July 15

Page 69


July 18

Jen’s Book Thoughts


July 20

The Rap Sheet


July 22

Writers Read


July 31

The Lipstick Chronicles