Paul D. Marks is the author of the Shamus Award-Winning noir mystery-thriller White Heat. Publishers Weekly calls White Heat a “taut crime yarn.” His story Howling at the Moon (EQMM 11/14) was short-listed for both the 2015 Anthony and Macavity Awards for Best Short Story, and came in #7 in Ellery Queen’s Reader’s Poll Award. Midwest Review calls Vortex, Paul’s noir novella, “…a nonstop staccato action noir.” His story Deserted Cities of the Heart appears in Akashic’s St. Louis Noir. And Ghosts of Bunker Hill will be in the December, 2016 Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine.
Paul D. Marks:
Listen to the Music
Music has been an influence on me since my dad called me into the family room (only we called it a den back then) to watch four mop-topped guys on the Ed Sullivan show. So it makes sense that, one way or another, music influences or at the very least insinuates its way into my writing.
I also never liked the name Paul…until February, 1964, when the Beatles first came on Ed Sullivan. After that, it magically transformed into a great name. Because of the Beatles I wanted to play guitar and because of that other Paul, I wanted to play bass guitar.
And when I was young (a great song by Eric Burdon and the Animals by the way), I really only liked rock ‘n’ roll. But my dad—a very powerful personality—liked swing and classical. Loved Benny Goodman in particular. So when we were in the car he would put on those stations and I would cringe and beg him to put on rock. Sometimes he’d give in, often not. But a funny thing happened on the way to adulthood, or in young adulthood, I began to enjoy swing and classical music too. Partly because I liked movies from the 30s and 40s, which were filled with that music, but also partly because I had been exposed to them, albeit unwillingly, as a kid. So I was already familiar with them. I even got so into it that that my friend Linda and I would go around LA to see some of the “old time” swing bands and performers, who were still around and still performing. The highlight of those trips was seeing the Glenn Miller Orchestra, led by Tex Beneke, with Helen O’Connell and Bob Eberly (formerly of the Jimmy Dorsey Orchestra) singing the songs they made famous, Brazil and Tangerine (which shows up in the film Double Indemnity).
So now, as a writer, all of this music infuses my work and characters. Music is a big part of my writing, helping express character and mood, though sometimes music can be difficult to express in a “two-dimensional” medium. Also, many of my story titles come from song titles.
My character, P.I. Duke Rogers (from my novel White Heat, set in the 1990s), listens to a variety of new wave and alternative music, everything from k.d. lang to Portis Head and even some Eric Clapton. (Gee, I wonder how he came by those traits? Maybe ’cause I like those artists?) His less open and less tolerant partner, Jack, only listens to classical and cowboy (not country) music, which he thinks are the only pure/legitimate forms of music (and I like those genres too). He calls Duke’s music “space case” music in Broken Windows, the coming sequel to White Heat. But the music isn’t there only to help define their characters. I use their musical tastes to highlight the difference between the two characters and their contrasting personalities.
In several of my stories, music is part of the characters’ lives. Ray Hood, in Dead Man’s Curve (from Last Exit to Murder), is a frustrated musician who has lost his ability to play and is aimless and foundering without it. He once played with Jan and Dean and the Beach Boys on the road—his claim to fame—and is trying for a comeback. He gets a chance to do a favor for an old friend by driving his classic car up the coast, playing music on the iPod, but things go wrong. Very wrong. But the music sets the mood, everything from Surfer Girl by the Beach Boys to Sober Driver by Dengue Fever.
In Born Under a Bad Sign (published in the Noir Blues issue of Dave Zeltserman’s HardLuck Stories), the main character listens to blues and in particular the old Albert King version of the song Born Under a Bad Sign, whose title is emblematic of the character’s life. From the story, “An Albert King CD played in the background, Born Under a Bad Sign. King sang about how his life had been one big fight since he learned to crawl. The music rang in Kit's ears: If it wasn't for bad luck, I wouldn't have no luck at all. Oh yeah, Kit knew all about bad luck and the blues, didn't he.”
More recently, in Deserted Cities of the Heart (from Akashic’s St. Louis Noir), the main character dreams of owning a Gibson Flying V guitar, like Albert King’s, and heading out on Route 66 to escape the boredom and safety and security of his hometown. And that guitar plays a special part in the story.
Besides, the music in the stories, I often play music in the background to help me get in the mood for what I’m writing. I have a work in progress set on the LA homefront during WWII. The main character, who’s been in three published stories, is a hot jazz musician, so I’ll play swing and big band music to set the mood. And, of course, the stories and novel are filled with the music of the era. Half the fun for me is listening to it and figuring out what songs work in the context of the stories. For the Duke Rogers sequel I might play alt rock or cowboy music. And I hope those moods come across in the writing. If I just want music that I enjoy and that helps me focus on my writing, I often play Baroque.
Today I’m listening to Benny Goodman and Duke Ellington and who knows what stories they might inspire or how it will affect what I’m working on right now. That’s one of the great things about music, it can inspire you in so many ways and bring out emotions, thoughts and feelings that we sometimes stifle in our everyday lives—and it can do the same for our characters. And remember, it don’t mean a thing if ain’t got that swing.
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