Does The UK Music Scene Have a Dark Underbelly?
British rock music still, hopefully, holds a place in your American hearts. And if you like both British noir AND rock music, here are a seven excellent crime fiction books set in and around the UK music scene that all give you glimpse of music’s darker underbelly.
1. Peter Robinson’s Pieces of My Heart. Like Ian Rankin, below, Robinson litters his books with musical references but rarely writes about the music scene itself. This one, however, opens in September 1969 when the body of a young woman who has been stabbed to death is found at the site of a three-day music festival in which the line up included Pink Floyd, Fleetwood Mac and Led Zeppelin, and focuses on a character who’s clearly drawn from Pink Floyd’s founder member Syd Barrett, who became mentally ill as a consequence of drug use.
2. Val McDermid’s Dead Beat. The first in McDermid’s Kate Brannigan series starts out as a missing persons story set in the rock scene. Brannigan goes to a gig with her music journalist boyfriend and when they meet the band’s singer Jett, he tells her his songwriting partner has gone missing; as a favour, Brannigan agrees to track her down. But when she finds her and reunites her with her rock star partner Jett, the songwriter is murdered. The setting is Manchester in the late 80s and early 90s, when it was the home town of New Order in the heady days of the Hacienda nightclub, which is mentioned a couple of times, and just shortly before the Happy Mondays and the Stone Roses were about to explode onto the scene.
3. Peter May’s The Runaway. Peter May’s standalone mystery is a fictionalised autobiography. At 17 he ran away from Glasgow with some mates to make it in the London music industry. He never did, but this book is a kind of what if? In his imagined version, the young lads glimpse John Lennon, and are present in the background as Bob Dylan makes his iconic film for “Subterranean Homesick Blues” in an alley behind the Savoy Hotel. But they also witness a brutal crime they all must return to fifty years later. A great glimpse of what swinging London felt like – especially to a complete outsider from Glasgow.
4. Doug Johnstone’s The Dead Beat. Doug Johnstone’s debut The Ossian’s featured cameos from Soundgarden and Nirvana; in his subsequent The Dead Beat, obituary writer Martha Fluke starts looking into a shocking suicide that strikes a chord with her own past, but the journey takes us through a delightfully authentic vision of 90s indie gig scene, and Martha’s own passion for indie cassettes will have you wanting to dig out old Teenage Fanclub records.
6. Louise Voss’s The Stage. The lead singer of a cult indie band left the music scene in the mid-90s and now lives a reclusive life working in the gift shop at a country house. In this new psych thriller, the appearance of a stalker drags her back to reconsidering her rock star life and the reasons it fell apart. The fact that Voss worked in the UK music industry for many years herself lends this a real sense of veracity.
7. Ian Rankin’s Black And Blue. It’s impossible not to mention Ian Rankin here, as his books are drenched in the spirt of British rock music. Black And Blue and Let It Bleed both borrow their titles from Rolling Stones’ records; Dead Souls is the title of a Joy Division song; The Hanging Garden is by The Cure. But read Black and Blue and there’s a cameo from Rankin himself, in the guise of the Edinburgh punk band The Dancing Pigs, which he was a member of when he was a university student in the early 80s.
8. Bad Penny Blues by Cathi Unsworth. Set in the swinging London in the 1960s, and based around the unsolved “Jack the Stripper Murders” of London prostitutes, Bad Penny Blues features tantalising glimpses of eccentric minor UK rock figures Screaming Lord Sutch and Joe Meek and the grubby Soho streets from which sixties pop burst into life. Unsworth’s noir tale is an evocative glimpse of the city at that time, with its world of bent cops, students, squatters and bohemians.