Although reading is a largely visual task (albeit in practice and not in the sense of a picture), what makes it so enjoyable is the imaginative task of creating a world with all of your senses from what is being described through words. And, as often is the case, music is the perfect accompaniment to reading—the right song can truly capture the mood or essence of a particular scene or even book.
Jazz, with all its twist and turns, builds and breaks, can really pair well with crime novels and encapsulate their pace and place. So much so that Andrew Cartmel was able to find the perfect song for 5 of his favorite crime novels!
LA Confidential by James Ellroy
June Christy—“Something Cool”
Ellroy actually name checks June Christy in his fiction, so this track is perfect. It also hails from the mid 1950s, so it nicely matches the period of LA Confidential. It’s a story song of dislocation and delusion, featuring Christy’s superb vocals against the magnificent, noir-ish jazz settings of Pete Rugolo, who knew a thing or two about being cool—he produced Miles Davis's original “Birth of the Cool” sessions.
The Turquoise Lament by John D. MacDonald
Sonny Rollins—“St Thomas”
It’s a tragedy that John D. MacDonald is now largely forgotten. A truly brilliant crime writer, in his heyday he sold in the tens of millions. His most popular books featured Travis McGee, a kind of informal private eye, who operated out of Florida and often plied his trade in the Bahamas and the Caribbean in his houseboat. The Turquoise Lament is one of the best McGees, and this calypso-flavoured, hip and swinging, Sonny Rollins masterpiece—named after one of the Virgin Islands—is an ideal accompaniment to the sunny setting of these dark adventures.
Phantom Lady by Cornell Woolrich
Duke Ellington—“East St Louis Toodle-Oo”
Woolrich is one of the undisputed masters of suspense. No matter how baroque or far-fetched his plots, he can create tension in the reader like no one else. Phantom Lady, written under his pseudonym William Irish, is a classic. Cornell Woolrich was a creature of the Jazz Age, and this early Duke Ellington masterpiece conjures up that era in a dark and eerie manner that’s perfectly in keeping with the intoxicating pulse and pervading spookiness of Woolrich at his best.
Thieves Like Us by Edward Anderson
Count Basie & Jimmy Rushing—“Sent for You Yesterday”
Blues shouter Jimmy Rushing joins the classic Count Basie Band—a musical force from the great Midwest, whose rural R&B energy in this edgy, dissatisfied, not-quite-a-love song sits nicely with this great 1937 novel, filmed twice. It is beautifully written and tells a gripping story about doomed arm robbers, set in Texas and Oklahoma, during the Great Depression.
The Hunter by Richard Stark
Ornette Coleman—“Lonely Woman”
Ornette Coleman was at the cutting edge of the new, free form jazz in the early 1960s, and this track, with its hectic urban harshness and urgency, is a perfect soundtrack for the 1962 New York-set crime classic, written by Donald Westlake under his famous pseudonym. The first novel about the ruthless master thief Parker, it served as the basis for the classic Lee Marvin thriller Point Blank and a later Mel Gibson remake, Payback.
Andrew Cartmel is a novelist and screenwriter. His work for television includes Midsomer Murders and Torchwood, and a legendary stint as Script Editor on Doctor Who. He has also written plays for the London Fringe, toured as a stand-up comedian, and is currently co-writing with Ben Aaronovitch a series of comics based on the bestselling Rivers of London books. He lives in London.