Sunday, March 19, 2023

Two Country Music Mysteries

In this post I am covering two humorous mystery novels set in the country music world. 

The first book was Fender Benders by Bill Fitzhugh, published in 2001. I read it in February.

This book is about a young country music singer in Nashville who makes it big with his first song. Eddie Long has high ambitions to become a big star and has been playing small gigs in Alabama and Mississippi; then his wife dies, possibly a suicide, and he heads for Nashville. He writes a song inspired by her death, and is noticed by a pair of well-known producers, Big Bill Herndon and Franklin Peavy. 

Jimmy Rogers, a freelance journalist, is writing Eddie's biography; he and Eddie had been planning the book since before Eddie went to Nashville. Jimmy gets shut out of the rights to the biography by Eddie's managers but decides to go ahead; while gathering facts, he begins to suspect that Eddie killed his wife. As the story moves along it gets darker and darker. 

There were many things I liked about Fender Benders, including reading about the country music business, how albums are made and such, but almost all of the characters are very unlikable. Sometimes I am OK with that, but this time it did not work well for me. There are funny moments throughout, but the story is also very dark and cynical.  It was the great plotting and pacing which kept me reading, and I had to know how it ended. 

A possible problem for some readers is that although one murder is solved, the one that starts the whole story is kind of left hanging.  

In early March, I started Baby, Would I Lie? by Donald E. Westlake, published in 1994. This next book was suggested to me by Todd Mason at Sweet Freedom, since it also had a country music theme. It had been on my shelves for six years, and it was a good companion read to Fender Benders.

Baby, Would I Lie? is part of a two-part series (a duology). In the first book, Trust Me on This, Sara Joslyn and Jack Ingersoll are working for the Galaxy, a supermarket tabloid that pays its employees three times the going rate but also demands that they use any means possible, often illegal and demeaning, to get the news. In the following book, Sara and Jack have escaped the Galaxy and are working at Trend, a Manhattan weekly magazine. Sara has been sent to Branson, Missouri, a center for live entertainment and tourism, to cover the trial of country singer Ray Jones for the rape and murder of Belle Hardwick. Staff from the Galaxy are also setting up in Branson, looking for any dirt that they can rake up.

I liked the character portrayals. Sara has a lot of sympathy with Ray Jones, and understands the love that his fans have for him, but she is there for the story. Jack is now her boss at Trend, but his main goal is to get revenge on the Galaxy and expose the underhanded methods they use. Ray Jones doesn't seem at all worried by the trial. All the evidence against him is circumstantial. A side plot concerns a large amount of money that Ray owes to the IRS. And there are many interesting secondary characters that go beyond caricatures.

This book was more of a fun read than Fender Benders and a different look at the country music industry. This one also focused on journalism as the main characters worked for a weekly magazine. 

Important things to know:

  • The mystery (did Ray Jones actually murder Belle Hardwick and if not, who did) is not central to the story. 
  • It is not necessary to read the first book in the Sara and Jack series, both can stand alone. But they work better as a pair.
  • Some reviewers felt that the portrayal of Branson, Missouri, and the tourists who visit, is mean-spirited. In retrospect, I can see that, although I did not take it too seriously. 


Cath said...

Now, country and western mysteries is not a sub-genre I thought existed. How silly of me because the crime genre pretty much covers 'everything ' I've discovered so why not C&W? Not sure I'm tempted but my husband might be as he's into C&W. I quite like it too to be honest.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I have read books set in the classical music world and in rock but never this one. But I guess it's the characters that make a book, not the setting.

TracyK said...

Cath, I did a bit of looking online and could not find that many mysteries set around country music. Todd Mason also pointed out that one of the Sharon McCone mysteries by Marcia Muller fit that description, and the book that James Patterson and Dolly Parton wrote, Run, Rose, Run, is set in Nashville. I am surprised that isn't a cosy series with that setting.

I like country music but more the older singers than the current ones.

One of the reasons I read this book was for the Book Bingo category BAND (book where music is central).

TracyK said...

Patti, I think I would enjoy a mystery set around just about any kind of music, and I know that there are lots of them to be found. But I don't think I will seek any out that I don't already have because I have too many books already.

I have a couple of Robert Barnard's books about Mozart, written under a pseudonym and Barbara Paul wrote some books using Enrico Caruso as a character.

Elgin Bleecker said...

Funny cover art on FENDER BENDERS. I’ve been meaning to read Fitzhugh for a long time, but just never got around to him. Thanks for the reminder.

Todd Mason said...

Glad you liked the Westlake (even given his not too cheerful take on Branson), and will suggest again two things--there are at least the two further published stories in the "Weekly Galaxy series": "Skeeks" and "Come Again?", both focused on Boy Cartwright rather than Sara, but still in the same spirit. And Marcia Muller's interest in country music, focused most intently in (among those I've read so far) THE BROKEN PROMISE LAND, is a bit more accepting than Westlake's...

And thanks for the plug!

TracyK said...

Elgin, same thing here. I had had this book for many years and finally got around to trying it. I am always a little leery of humorous mysteries, but I am liking them better these days. I have another book Fitzhugh published in 2004, Radio Activity, and I will give that one a try too.

I love book covers with skeletons or skulls so I had to have both of these covers for Fender Benders.

TracyK said...

Todd, I will see if I can locate the two Boy Cartwright stories, I know I would like them. I did enjoy Baby, Would I Lie? and I wish I had read it sooner.

The Broken Promise Land by Muller does sound good, and I guess I will have to hop around in the series, but I was going to look for a copy of Trophies and Dead Things first, the one you recommended starting with, since it is a bit earlier in the series.

Margot Kinberg said...

Sorry I'm a bit late to this, Tracy. You've already piqued my interest in Fender Benders; I really might try that one. And I do like Donald Westlake; he creates really funny situations and some lines without overdoing it. I respect that in a writer.

TracyK said...

Margot, Hope you try Fender Benders some day, and enjoy it. I know that there are lot of authors out there and we can't read them all. Both of these books are somewhat different from other mysteries in that they don't strictly focus on the mystery but focus more on the story around it.

Todd Mason said...

"Come Again?" has appeared in the 2001 volume THE MYSTERIOUS PRESS ANNIVERSARY ANTHOLOGY, edited by (unsurprisingly) Otto Penzler, and perhaps nowhere else; "Skeeks" appeared in PLAYBOY and might be archived at (if they aren't soon sued out of existence) and was also collected in A GOOD STORY AND OTHER STORIES, a late collection of Westlake's (and one of the relative few...he perhaps didn't see much point in seeking to publish collections, though I think those who downgrade his short fiction aren't correct).

TracyK said...

Thanks so much for finding this info for me, Todd. I bought a Kindle version of THE MYSTERIOUS PRESS ANNIVERSARY ANTHOLOGY (very cheap), and "Come Again?" is the first story and with Kindle preview I could have just read it online. But I bought it anyway, and I may get a hard copy version later.

I am also confident that I can find a copy of A GOOD STORY AND OTHER STORIES. It just depends on how much I want to spend on it.

Thanks again.

Kathy's Corner said...

Hi Tracy, Alice Munro is someone I must read but I know what you mean since I am elderly too abnd certain stories about the elderly can be hard to take. It's tricky because on the one hand I know I shouldn't just read for entertainment. There are books out there with depressing themes that one can learn a great deal from. But lately I need escape. LoL

TracyK said...

Kathy, I agree with you that there are very good and worthwhile books out there with depressing themes, but right now I am avoiding reading them. Most books about older characters are not too depressing even when they touch on topics that I worry about.

Alice Munro is worth trying, but there are people who don't like her writing style. I have only read the one book so I am no expert, but she always makes me think.

Howard said...

This post made me think of the novels of Kinky Friedman (starring Kinky, naturally) which probably fit into the category, depending of course on one's tolerance for all things Kinky. Personally, I loved these books. I was actually rather sad when he apparently decided to quit writing them.

TracyK said...

Howard, my husband is fan of Kinky Friedman's novels and I think he read all of them, and was sorry that he stopped writing them. I read a few of them, but I did not like them as much as he did.