When I was a teenager, and all the other kids were grooving to the Beach Boys and the Beatles, I was drawn to Muddy Waters—and to the Rolling Stones, whose music owed more to American urban blues than to rock ‘n roll. Now, four decades later, my favorite vacation is a blues cruise, steaming through the tropics with the likes of Buddy Guy, Shemikia Copeland, and Magic Dick.
By remarkable coincidence, Liam Mulligan, the hero of my crime novels, loves the blues, too. As he drives around New England fighting the good fight, he’s always got Koko Taylor, B.B. King, or Stevie Ray Vaughn playing on his car’s sound system. The blues is the soundtrack of both of our lives.
But it was only with my latest novel, when a shaken Mulligan killed a man for the first time and turned to the blues for solace, that we both asked ourselves why. Why were we always drawn to music about hard times at the bottom of a shot glass—the music of the scorned and shattered?
Of course the blues, or sometimes bluesy jazz, has long been associated with noir movies and TV shows. You can hear great examples in Chinatown (1974), In the Heat of the Night (1967) Black Snake Moan(2006), and The Blues Brothers (1980), which combined Chicago-style blues with a parody of detective films. And what better to herald the arrival of a noir detective than a moaning blues saxophone like the one in the theme song from the Mike Hammer TV show (1958-9).
Mulligan inherited his love of the blues from his late father, who would come through the door exhausted from another day of delivering milk, put a scratchy Son Seals album on the turntable, pull out his Comet harmonica, and play along—even though nobody would ever mistake him for Little Walter.
Now, after a long day spent shaking a tail, tracking down a killer, or staring at a broken body, Mulligan does the same thing, although no one would ever mistake him for Rick Estrin. Like his father, he belongs to the downtrodden tribe that turns misery into music—the kind that warns us what the world is like and steels us against it.
It is music well-suited to Providence, R.I., where Mulligan was born and raised. About the only thing Rhode Island ever had going for it was Narragansett Bay, but the sludge from the sewage pipes and textiles mills poisoned it. The little state’s mill jobs took off for the Carolinas on their way to Latin America and South Asia in the 1960s; and after that, his little slice of New England was a dead zone for a very long time. Even now, as Providence experiences something of a renaissance, the city is crawling with working class people set upon by organized crime and politicians who misplaced the morals God gave them. The place is flooded with blue. It’s either the blues or country music that speaks to—and for—people like that, and, country never took hold there.
Me? I grew up just 20 miles away in a parochial Massachusetts mill town where the mill packed up and moved to South Carolina when I was ten years old. It’s no accident, then, that aside from the Cowsills, the most famous band to come out of the Rhode Island area is Roomful of Blues, whose lead singer, Phil Pemberton, is a good friend.
But there’s more to the appeal of the blues than that.
Mulligan was an investigative reporter until the dying newspaper he worked for fired him last year in A Scourge of Vipers. I used to be an investigative reporter, too. Mulligan’s new job is working part time for a private detective agency, and mine is writing crime novels. What those jobs have in common is that we are forever probing the dark hearts we pray against.
Both of us have locked eyes with mobsters, button men, pimps, drug dealers, corrupt politicians, and serial killers. More than once, we’ve found ourselves wondering if something rotten was eating away at us, turning us into the very thing that we fear. Then the twang of a blues guitar fills the room, preaching that even in the darkest of times, light exist and that the purpose of life is just to live it.
In The Dread Line, as Mulligan sips his bitter whiskey and ponders how killing a man may have changed him, he turns to “Different Shades of Blue,” a 2014 composition by Joe Bonamassa. It’s a wrenching tale of lost love, but one line said it all to both of us:
“You carry the pain around, and that’s what gets you through.”
You can watch Bonamassa perform it here.
In The Dread Line, the New England Patriots, still shaken by a series of murder charges against one of their star players (true story) have hired Mulligan and McCracken (not a true story) to investigate the background of a college star they are thinking of drafting. At first, the job seems routine, but as soon as they begin asking questions, they get push-back. The player has something to hide, and someone is willing to kill to make sure it remains secret.
To order The Dread Line by Bruce DeSilva from a choice of independent or chain online bookstores, please click here.
This post first appeared on Lisa’s Book Critiques. See more of what it has to offer about books here.