Murder to Music was published in 1959, the first novel of a promising detective novelist who apparently then left the genre. Margaret Newman wrote more books – children’s fiction and romance – but this was her only crime novel. I must admit I was surprised to discover this on both counts: that it was a first novel, and that she never followed it up.
Perhaps with our more genre-organised and niche-targeted book market, and the retrospective sense of the midcentury as the “classical” era of the detective novel, it’s too easy to forget that writing a detective novel wasn’t necessarily an declaration of allegiance to crimebookculture. (Not that I’m knocking niches, by the way. That would be rank ingratitude when publishers like Dean Street Press, and Agora Books, who republished Murder to Music, are putting out such splendid titles.)
Perhaps it felt more like a composer of the turn of the century composing a mass: less a statement of belief and more a artistic calling card in a recognisable form. And of course other writers disappeared from detection into other genres. A.A. Milne relates somewhere how he managed to get The Red House Mystery into print as his debut, and then spent ages trying to persuade a publisher who wanted another detective book that he actually had a children’s book about this bear…and then spent several later years telling publishers that he had a great idea for another detection yarn and being told that it’s the Hundred-Acre Wood crew that pay the rent round here.
Since Newman didn’t write any other detective novels, it’s perhaps inevitable that comparisons to other more prolific writers spring to mind. But even before I discovered the author’s bio sketch, I was already slotting this book alongside Cyril Hare. It’s a book about a murder during a performance of a new mass by a big amateur choral association in London, and it feels as if the writer actually knows their milieu. I don’t, so I can’t judge the actual accuracy, but there’s something about the way the committee spend their time wrangling over soloist fees, programmes and rehearsal etiquette that feels right – and reminds me strongly of Hare’s When the Wind Blows.
Newman’s book is one of my favourite kind of detective novel: the mystery where you get to see how another group thinks and feels. It’s a trend you find across crime writing, from the jacket blurb which boasts “a crime rocks the insular world of ivory miniature painting, as a ruthless killer finds that three or four local families are just the material she likes to work on” to the relentless drive of Joyce Barnaby in Midsomer Murders to join every single bellringing, am dramming, book discussing, school governing, water-colouring, hobby-group to provide sufficient backdrops for Insp. Barnaby’s investigations. It’s not always doen brilliantly or persuasively. But Murder to Music, like Hare’s novels, has the feel of real experience behind it.
The other author it reminded me of was P.D. James. I checked the date of publication after a while, as it seemed too “late” a novel for its period. (Yes, I’d remembered it as 1952 when it was actually 1959…) This shows itself in small details here and there. There is a genuinely funny line in which a suitor drives a nice young lady home, and asks her to stay a moment longer in the car to say goodnight, but she replies that her father “read one of the Kinsey reports last year, and ever since he has regarded any parked automobile with the greatest suspicion. Say goodnight nicely.” The sense of social change is handled with the lightness which can sometimes come from an author writing about their own time (and avoiding the clunkiness risk in dealing with the past when It Was A Time of Contrasts And Also The Birth of The Modern Era.)
More powerfully, there is an undercurrent of feeling that social (and even genre) conventions don’t quite work any more. The scene mentioned above is funny, but highlights the fact that the detective is a young widower dating a woman several years his junior and stranded halfway between different relationship codes. This becomes a pervasive symbol throughout the novel. The mass they’re performing, one perceptive singer insists, is wrong in its theology. The emotions and narratives of the music undercut the progress of the liturgical sequence. Then the hired soloist’s voice feels wrong coming from his mouth. There’s an unsettling impression through the novel, that the world is dissonant somehow.
That’s what most reminds me of P.D. James, perhaps. It’s not too much of a spoiler, I hope, to say that this book’s plot is overshadowed by the events and experiences of the Second World War. It reminded me strongly of The Skull Beneath the Skin at a few points. I even went as far as to scribble in my notes that Newman might be the transition between Agatha Christie and P.D. James. I don’t mean that she sat down to write a light detective novel on the theme of dissonance. But the book’s grimmer turn in the later chapters expresses, I think, the same feeling that fictional conventions are being used which cannot contain or explain the memories and traumas they’re alluding to. Even the English landscape opens up to show horrors underneath our feet. To that extent, it’s very P.D. James indeed.
I hope that doesn’t make it sound too horrifying – this is not an explicitly violent or unpleasant book. It’s sharply written, gives an enjoyable insight into the musical culture of London in the 50s, and encapsulates a fascinating moment of uncertainty and unease in detective fiction.