Orchestrating madly as WWII looms

Tony winner Rupert Holmes does everything but tap dance as he slips extra clues into a CD

Music has spun the plot of many a mystery, but "Swing" is the first to include a CD with musical clues. The tunes, orchestrations, and most of the singing are by the author himself, and how many whodunits can make that statement?

It's not so surprising when the author is Rupert Holmes, who memorably gave Broadway audiences the option to vote on how to end each performance of "The Mystery of Edwin Drood." He reaped Tony Awards for the book and score. The show won the Tony for best musical, and some version is still running somewhere two decades later.

As for "Swing," I changed my vote on villainy more than once, being no less gullible than the narrator, Ray Henderson. He's a saxophonist and arranger in a touring big band playing a fine hotel in 1940 near the Golden Gate International Exposition, California's answer to the New York World's Fair.

America is not yet in World War II. German-Americans hold a rally. Japanese diplomats want an orchestration of a prize-winning composition by a flirtatiously delightful Berkeley student. She tracks down Ray for help.

Will love walk in as they notate together? Your average mystery doesn't have the details of writing and copying a big-band score - much more important than the lusts of characters in the wings.

Does it matter that Ray's ex-wife turns up working at the fair for fan-dancer Sally Rand? Or that the bandleader's wife asks Ray to lie for her? Or that a mutilated corpse may not be what it seems?

The story pulses ahead a bit like an orchestration itself, with odd harmonies, varying tempos, witty exchanges (sometimes only innuendo), and a poignant leitmotif of parental loss and guilt. The latter imagery resonates even in a conventional no-way-out climax, à la James Bond, though James never claimed a life-preserving advantage in the tenor sax.

It's "a myst'ry with musical diction," to quote a song on the CD. The same might be said of "Looking for Chet Baker" and other tales by drummer Bill Moody, a longtime expert in jazz-scene mysteries. But Moody never added a CD of his drumming.

"Swing" lets us hear Ray's fictional music, with riffs and rhythms like artifacts of the days when the whole band would chant in response to the singer. Their counterparts abound in bandleader Lee Barron's history of Midwest bands, "Odyssey of the Mid-Nite Flyer." I toured briefly with one of those bands, enough to have a fellow feeling with the kidding camaraderie of Holmes's musicians on the road.

Ray is part of a sax section dubbed the French Foreign Legion because the players are escaping from something - though "nothing bad" had happened to one of them "other than him being just an average saxophonist."

Narrator Ray gets so many old brand names and other things deliciously right - anyone for a lime phosphate? - that I hate to niggle. But what American ever referred to a drum set as a "drum kit" in 1940 (though some do now)?

Holmes wasn't there but took inspiration from his father, who toured in a big band at the time. So the beat goes on from an era when what musicians loved to play was what the public loved to hear.

Their attitudes and lingo, mostly mild by today's literary standards, form a counterpoint to the strains of violence, deception, and espionage that entangle Ray.

School bands and others relied on stock arrangements such as those Ray writes as hack work. But when he visits such a band from abroad it's "like Handel dropping in on the Mormon Tabernacle Choir."

For all the youthful excesses that threaten to haunt him, he has grown in many ways. Like his readers, he has to learn that, as he sings on the bandstand, "What is Greek to some is not to Greeks, you see?"

Roderick Nordell is the Monitor's acting book editor.

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