Saturday, September 14, 2013

The Music Lovers, by Jonathan Valin

Another book out of the "authors I knew of, but never quite got around to" file, and again brought into my sphere of attention by "Joe V". The Music Lovers is another detective novel that is situated quite a long way into its series. Not that it matters much with this one. Whatever the setup is with his girlfriend Jo, she is out of town, and remains so for the course of the book, so there isn't really anyone you have to catch up with but the central figure of Harry Stoner himself.

The book begins when Stoner is hanging around his office on a cold winter's night with nothing better to do, when an odd little man called Leon Tubin appears, wanting Harry's help finding out who stole his priceless record albums. Actually, he's sure he already knows who stole them. He just wants to prove it.

Thus begins Harry's entry into the world of Cincinnati audiophiles. They love music, but they probably love their stereo systems even more. It perhaps goes without saying, then, that they are all men. Do men still compare audio equipment now? And if so, has it become something different than a grown men's boys' club? I can remember the era when this was big, vaguely, but it seems to me they must have moved on to something else. Or maybe speakers are just as important to compare and argue about as ever and I am just not in the know.

In any case, this situation, like a couple of the others in the book, signal it as not our own time anymore. I can forget how far away the early nineties are from us now until I read a book written in that time, where a character can still fume over the whole Reagan/Bush administration--Bush senior, that it, who now seems almost benign. Some of the plot points turn on the fact that people can't reach each other on their landlines--because landlines are the only thing anybody has. It gives you pause to think about how so many plot devices just dropped out of writers' hands with the advent of the cell phone. Not that I have significantly better luck reaching anyone on their cell phone than their landline even now, but that's another story.

One of the pleasures of reading detective fiction is that they are such a good vehicle for exploring a city or a region. I don't know Cincinnati--I'm not sure I've ever even driven through it, so it's a pleasure to read about it through Stoner's eyes as he takes us to various neighborhoods and suburbs of the city. He obviously knows his city, just as he obviously knows the music that the music lovers frequently partake of in the book. (Actually, I see that Valin pretty much left writing mysteries behind in favor or writing magazine articles for audiophiles.)

All of the characters in the book are somewhat oddball, but there is one that was actually puzzling, not to mention uncomfortable to encounter. Sherwood Leoffler, who could be said to be Leon Tubin's nemesis, is portrayed as a bigot who is not really all that bad. He borders constantly on saying some unforgivable racial slur, but his fellow audiophiles seem to be resigned to this, even when the jibe is at them. I really found myself wondering what Valin was trying to do here and never did quite figure it out. Perhaps he had a real life model that he was trying to render faithfully. In any case, it was an experiment that didn't quite pan out.

I had a feeling as I read this book that it wasn't the kind of book that would be written today. It's a good, solid enjoyable read, but in reading it, I realize that today's mysteries are ratcheted up a little from its pace. No editor would let Stoner amble around and meet quite so many suspects, or, all in all, to have quite so little mayhem in the midst of this. Or at any rate, I can't think of anyone writing quite this kind of thing. I think even someone who might be a rough equivalent, Michael Connelly, has ratcheted things up a bit, or at least he had in the last one I read.         

If I'm right, it's too bad, because there should definitely be a place for mysteries that revolve more around detection than violence and mayhem, but don't shy away from it totally either.  

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