Sunday, March 06, 2016

Rock Critic Murders (1987)

This hard-boiled detective novel is a little bit more, and a little bit less, than you might think. Jesse Sublett is a lifelong denizen of Austin, Texas, a bass player, songwriter, and founding member of the Skunks. In the '80s, he established himself as a writer—journalist, essayist, and crime fiction novelist. Here he is working self-consciously in the hard-boiled tradition of Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald. Our intrepid gumshoe hero is a bass player working a day job in a collection agency as a skiptracer—delicious jargon abounds all through. His name is Martin Fender, and if that makes you groan, note that the drummer in the band is named Billy Ludwig. The band is getting back together for a reunion gig, but the star guitar player and heart and soul of the band, KC, is kind of depressed. Then he turns up dead of a suicide. Then so do a couple of local rock critics. It spools on from there: there's a hot chick redhead who is nothing but trouble, a missing kilo of cocaine, a shady real estate deal, sinister Mexicans. It's regionalized to the environs of Austin, and has no new ideas about the hard-boiled dick tale. But Sublett has got the midnight noir deadpan down pretty well, and that carries it. For me it started off a lot better than it ended, which is often the case with hard-boiled detective fiction. What intrigued me, of course, was the rock critic thread, and it is a rich one, unfortunately seen only in glimpses. I wish there'd been more of these guys. The first time two of them show up, just before they are murdered (gone too soon, alas), is a window into a certain point of view. One is grossly fat, patronizing, and full of himself. The other is a nervous runt. Their utter uselessness as human beings is only underlined by their garish exit. Later, outside a nightclub, a few more rock critics are seen, and they could well be as loathsome as the victims, but unfortunately they fall back into the shade too quickly. I wanted more rock critics! It does feel like there is some obscure score settling going on here, as Fender's contempt for them is utter and total. Fender (and Sublett) are coming at it from the musicians' side, so there is a lot of nice detail about studios, band rehearsals, nightclub management, and general touring and performing experience. Sublett has gone on to write more novels in a series featuring Fender— Tough Baby, Boiled in Concrete—plus some true-crime and what looks to be a very interesting personal story in a memoir, Never the Same Again. So I came for the rock critics, but maybe I'll end up staying for something else.

In case it's not at the library.


  1. "One is grossly fat, patronizing, and full of himself. The other is a nervous runt." Isn't that a fair profile of John Cusack's two record store clerks in High Fidelity? Can't remember if they were quite such caricatures in the Hornby book?

  2. Yup, pretty much, although I think it harks more to classic comic elements than specifically rock critics. It's a good way to set them up as mockable, if they already look Mutt & Jeff or Laurel & Hardy, etc. That's one reason I wanted more rock critics. This was just too easy and obvious.