Written by Luis Gutiérrez Maluenda, translated by Nick Caistor – It’s not often that a crime novel calls to mind the work of Boris Vian, the multi-talented French saxophonist, writer, translator and publisher who, when asked to discover the latest American noir author and translate his work into French, decided it would be easier to just write a novel himself. But Music for the Dead manages it – the novel is dripping with classic jazz and a vintage pulp feel, in both style and its occasional disregard for political correctness.
Mike Winowsky is a private eye who divides his time between his three addictions: smooth jazz, smooth women and rough bourbon. Living in New York in the 1940s gives him an unfortunate amount of access his addictions, spending his days in his tiny office/apartment in Little Italy, and his nights in the jazz clubs of Harlem. Here he listens to and befriends Duke Ellington, who is concerned for the welfare of his friend Billy Strayhorn. Someone is blackmailing Strayhorn, who is openly gay which in 1940s America, even in the relatively liberal jazz circles of New York, makes him ripe for blackmail. Winowsky agrees to put some pressure on the blackmailer, chiefly to obtain the autograph of the great jazz composer Strayhorn.
Winowsky’s list of suspects is short, consisting of only one man, an opportunist with previous form named Luther Smith. When he confronts him to get him to lay off, and Smith is later found murdered, Winowsky knows there’s more to this than simple blackmail. Someone’s after him, someone wants him out of New York, if not dead. Someone doesn’t want the truth to get out. Winowsky digs and digs, and what he uncovers is darker and more complex than anything Raymond Chandler could have written.
He is beaten up by the police, led astray by a black prostitute, a famous jazz singer, a rich white homosexual, a young gambling addict and all three of the women he falls for at various points in the novel. One of them is conspiring to hide something from him, but he can’t work out which. On one hand it could be any of them, on the other hand none of them looks likely.
There’s corruption going all the way to the top, as well as drugs, alcohol, gangs, music, sex – everything you’d expect from the best 1940s noir, without a lot of the self-censorship that comes with novels set in that period. It’s so overt, it makes for uncomfortable reading. The translation avoids discriminatory words for African-Americans, but repeatedly uses homophobic language – an understandable choice for the translator (and possibly the author, it’s hard to say without reading Spanish) to make, but not necessarily one today’s readers will tolerate.
That said, this novel doesn’t read at all like a translation. For many this maybe be a good thing. The translator has created a readable, enjoyable English version of the story. However, if you want to experience the work of a new voice in Spanish crime writing you may feel disappointed at how traditionally American this novel feels. In many ways, it could be the work of an undiscovered author writing in 1940s America.
Music for the Dead is a well-written and convincing pastiche of 40s noir, a twisted and dark story with a wise-cracking alcoholic PI, an army of femmes fatale and a wicked soundtrack. The one thing it isn’t is a glimpse at a new world. I hope to see more from this author translated into English. He has several other novels written in Spanish, and it would be good to see some of them to compare the setting. Hopefully they will be as well translated as this one.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars