Friday, February 20, 2015

Review of The Day the Music Died by Ed Gorman (Berkeley, 1999)

February 1959.  After watching Buddy Holly in concert lawyer and investigator Sam McCain drives home to Black River Falls, Iowa, through a winter storm with the unrequited love of his life, Pamela.  He wakes the next morning to twin disasters: his rock and roll idol has perished in a plane crash, and Kenny and Susan Whitney have been killed in an apparent murder-suicide.  To make matters worse, McCain was present when Kenny blew his brains out, having been sent to the mansion by his boss, the acerbic Judge Esme Anne Whitney.  McCain is not convinced Kenny killed Susan, but local police chief Cliff Sykes Jnr thinks it’s an open and shut case, and what’s more is delighted given his rivalry with the judge.  McCain finds himself stuck in the middle both professionally and privately.  The judge wants McCain to prove Kenny’s innocence, the police chief wants him to stop poking around in the investigation; he’s in love with the lovely Pamela, the judge’s personal assistant, whilst Mary Travers is in love with him and her fiancée detests him.  And to add a complication, McCain’s younger sister has got herself in trouble.  All McCain needs to do is solve the murder-suicide and resolve his personal life and his sister’s problem in the full glare of small town America.

The Day the Music Died is a P.I. novel set in a small Iowa town in the late 1950s and is the first book in the Sam McCain series.  In many ways it is the mirror of the typical hardboiled P.I. tale set in a big city.  McCain is smart, pleasant and good, lacking physical presence and menace, and is unlucky in love.  Black River Falls is a small, conservative town run by a handful of families, where everyone seems to know everyone.  The story revolves around an apparent murder-suicide.  It’s a strong hook, but after opening the story lacks impetus and tension until near the end despite the various rivalries and the themes of race and abortion subverting the conservative values of small town America.  The sense of place and characters also seemed a little one-dimensional, and it was a mystery to me as to why McCain was mooning over Pamela, when he clearly had more affection for both Mary and his beatnik lover.  Where Gorman did hit the mark was with the sense of time and culture, evoking the music, and race and class politics of the mid-west in the 1950s.  Overall, a pleasant enough read and a nice twist on the typical P.I. tale.

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