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Cover of 'Swan Song'Well, well, well. So what do you say to a detective novel in which, in response to a telegram saying that his brother has been found dead, a character says “DELIGHTED HOPING FOR THIS FOR MONTHS SUICIDE EH QUERY DONT BOTHER ME NOW CHARLES SHORTHOUSE”? The telegram reply is mad, quite mad; so is the character that sends it; and so, you might think, the man who invented this, Edmund Crispin. Mad, and deliciously so.

And this book is a bit of delicious madness. Crispin’s forte tends to be sheer farce, laced with wicked, clever witticisms and obscure literary allusions. His characters are extremes, for the greater part–extreme eccentrics, extreme geniuses, extreme philosophers, extreme all sorts of things–and this larger-than-life scale on which they operate often results in hilarity.  Gervase Fen, Crispin’s English professor of English Lit. and detective, is rather reminiscent, in approach, of the very silly Lord Peter Wimsey of Dorothy Sayers’ Whose Body, but, if anything, Fen is actually nutty where Wimsey seemed to affect nuttiness (and other novels in which  Wimsey features show us that the silliness masks a troubled mind). To Fen, a nice murder is a puzzle to be solved—there are no moral concerns here. He  seems, in fact, determined to enjoy himself as much as possible, even to the point of indulging in some completely off-kilter deception to get things done and to get information he wants. And of course, Crispin permits such deception for the purpose not of showing anyone what a genius at disguise Fen is—he decidedly isn’t, since he doesn’t bother with it—but simply because the result is good-natured, rollicking comedy.

In this case, Fen is called in to investigate the mysterious death of Edwin Shorthouse, a much-disliked opera singer.  We are in Oxford, where rehearsals are on for the first post-war production of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger. Shorthouse has been found, hanged, in his dressing room, with the door locked. Suicide, eh? That’s what his brother says in the telegram quoted above. As it turns out, this is not suicide, but murder—but how do you murder somebody by hanging in a closed room, with a witness around to testify that nobody entered or left at the time of death? Somebody from among the opera’s cast and production members has been clever enough to do so, and it is Fen’s job to find out whodunit and how.

Suffice it to say that, as well as being a grand comic turn of a book, this is also a deviously plotted one. The investigation is complicated and the identity of the murderer a genuine surprise. It has the signature Crispin (and also John Dickson Carr) flaw of being a little too elaborate to be soved so neatly, but no matter; as it is for Fen, it is supposed to be a puzzle. Right through, Crispin treats us to pithy observations on each of the characters, on Wagner, on singers in general, on composers, and on whatever catches his fancy, really. The only false note is struck, I find, at a point when there is another death and tremendous sorrow for one of the characters. The black-comedic tone doesn’t wear very well all the time. It is murder and death and extreme hatred that we’re dealing with, after all; at times, a certain gravity we feel robs us of any enjoyment.

Still, I forgive a lot for the moment in the book when a little man says, reproachfully, to somebody just rescued from  an apparent suicide attempt: “Think of the nice birds, and the nice trees, and the nice bloody atom bombs, and all the things what make life worth living.” Now that is, most certainly, a worthy sentiment. But give me a nice bird and a nice tree and a nice bloody Edmund Crispin, and keep the atom bomb, dear sir.

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Bolden
Charles “Buddy” Bolden and his band–Standing, left to right: Jimmy Johnson (bass), Buddy Bolden (cornet), Willy Cornish (valve trombone), Willy Warner (clarinet); Seated, left to right: Brock Mumford (guitar), Frank Lewis (clarinet).

I have previously encountered the forms of Michael Ondaatje’s novel-biography, Coming Through Slaughter–in his memoir-novel, Running in the Family, a later work that employs many of the devices to be found in Slaughter. There are quick shifts in voice and perspective, sections consisting entirely of transcripts of interviews conducted, leaps in chronology, poems, and “found” print archival material–a photograph here, a newspaper story there–thrown together to tell not a story but many possible stories, the beauty being in the interplay of a plurality of voices and recordings of the past, with as much conveyed by the gaps between them as by what they say. So it wasn’t, presumably, all new–but the brilliance of Ondaatje is that it was.

Slaughter is a novel-biography; I am not sure what else to call it. It is neither fiction nor yet non-fiction. Its focus is a musician named Buddy Bolden, in early 2oth century New Orleans. Bolden is a cornet player, a barber, a collector of stories for a paper he publishes, called The Cricket, a husband, a father, a lover, a friend, a madman.

There was actually, historically, a musician named Buddy Bolden; he was acknowledged by most early jazz musicians as one of the fathers of jazz. His career came to an end when he was committed to an asylum after a fit of psychosis at the age of 30. There are no known recordings of him playing, and only one known photograph (the one posted above, which is also in Ondaatje’s book) but there are stories, many stories. Some of these have been corroborated with research and others have been found to be merely stories. Still, all of the stories apparently persist. Where the truth about Bolden separates from the legend is difficult to tell.

That ambiguity is, I suppose, ultimately the nature of history-writing, which is always a tying together of fragments of the past into a narrative that seems acceptable and plausible in the present. And that ambiguity serves as the foundation for Coming Through Slaughter. It could be called a novel, but that would be ignoring those sections of it that consist entirely of archival material and summaries of archival material. It could be called a biography, but, a little further research informed me that some of the events Ondaatje discusses are purely fictional, while others are acknowledged as the stuff of myth. I don’t know what to call it, other than novel-biography.

But then again, labelling it is not really important. What is amazing is the vastness and the density of this slim book, which is only 156 pages long. Ondaatje’s prose is so full of adrenaline that it literally throbs against the temples as it races from scene to scene. Bolden in a barbershop, shaving customers, Bolden playing the cornet, Bolden and his children, Bolden leaving his wife and disappearing for two years, Bolden having an affair, Bolden sleeping with woman after woman, Bolden slashing a man in a fight, Bolden persuading the whores of Storyville to pose for his friend, Bellocq, the strange photographer, who in actual fact left behind a vast collection of pictures methodically mutilated. And finally, Bolden at a parade, going mad.

Ondaatje’s descriptive writing is textured and coloured; it smells good sometimes and bad at other times, and it reaches out and grabs at you with rough fingers, sometimes caressing, sometimes pinching hard and leaving bruises. It has a peculiar immediacy and sensual quality that comes from sharp detailing of minute particularities, to the exclusion of the settings and landscapes to position these details in. There is an improvisatory quality here, much like the form of jazz itself–in 10 pages we can go from a conversation to a third person descriptive section to what appears to be an interview to a poem to a dream. How do you read the silences between these narrative jags, how do you put them together? Each reading is a wildly imaginative act.

We are there; we are with Bolden; he can only have lived in and through us. And he is most alive at two times–when Ondaatje writes about his cornet-playing and when he writes about his episode of psychosis. Arguably, nobody has written about playing jazz, feeling jazz as evocatively as Ondaatje does; and undeniably, Bolden’s madness shouts through every few lines, until, at the last, it is shrieking as loudly as his cornet.

If this is a history of Bolden in early jazz, it is an odd sort of one. Factually, it seems it is practically bankrupt. There are only pieces here and pieces there to make a story out of.  But Ondaatje’s sometimes self-conscious phrasing works to remind us that this, like all histories, is a story, even as it drags us right into it.

It was a music that had so little wisdom you wanted to clean nearly every note he passed… There was no control except the mood of his power…and it is for this reason it is good you never heard him play on recordings. If you never heard him play some place where the weather for instance could change the next series of notes — then you should never have heard him at all…

But there was a discipline, it was just that we didn’t understand. We thought he was formless, but I think now he was tormented by order, what was outside it. He tore apart the plot–see his music was immediately on top of his own life. Echoing. As if, when he was playing, he was lost and hunting for the right accidental notes. Listening to him was like talking to Coleman. You were both changing direction with every sentence, sometimes in the middle, using each other as a springboard through the dark. You were moving so fast it was unimportant to finish and clear everything. He would be describing something in 27 ways. There was pain and gentleness everything jammed into each number…

There are no known recordings of Bolden playing, but Jelly Roll Morton did base one of his pieces on an earlier one by Bolden. Listen to an mp3 file of Buddy Bolden’s Blues (Jelly Roll Morton).

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