Holmes is known for his Broadway musicals and the delightful AMC nostalgia series Remember WENN. He brings both those talents together in his mystery novel Swing. Set in late 1940, just before the U.S. entered the war, he delicately interweaves the era’s “no, it can’t happen in America” insistence, the fear of Nazi and Japanese depredations across the word lurking beneath that insistence, and the dark past of a decent guy who plays sax in a big band, all to create a moody noir instability––not because you can’t trust any one but because how much and who you can trust keeps shifting in unexpected directions. The truth is out there, but you have take risks to discover not only hidden villains but unexpected allies. Holmes, himself a musician and the son of a player in Red Norvo’s big band, knows the lifestyle and the character of his players. He knows music, too, drawing on that knowledge to toss us clues as to what, exactly, is going on. His descriptions of San Francisco and its West Coast “World’s Fair” at Treasure Island locate you in a real place and time, as well as make good use of the distinct quirks of that setting to move his story along. The action hits early, literally as well as literally, then there’s a slow build of characters with tantalizing flashbacks and introspection that keep you eager for more.
You could easily see actors from the forties taking on the main players’ roles. Cary Grant or Tyrone Power could capture Ray’s complicated character: seemingly easy going but always seeing the darkness in those around him and ready to cut to the quick when he has to. He doesn’t go all cynical; he’s not a hypocrite. He just slaps a layer of casualness over his own wounds and acts as if all he can manage is to try to do as little damage as possible, though he has far more integrity than he gives himself credit for. There’s some chance for romance for him, too, with a knowing and mordant ex-wife (a Joan Bennett, Jane Wyatt, Maureen O’Hara, or Clare Trevor type); a snappy talking, bright young musician who isn’t always on the level (Ella Raines, Anne Shirley), and the band leader’s sexy and not-at-all discreet wife (Clare Trevor gone bad, Carole Landis, Hilary Brook). Anyway, Swing is a good read: atmospheric, suspenseful, and feeling.
Know the difference. It could save your life.
Cover photo illustration: Rick Schwab, Cover photographs: (foreground) Ralph crane, Time Life Pictures/Getty Images; (background) MortonBeebe.com Book © 2006. Photo Sources, Treasure Island (www.atlasobscura.com); Tyronne Power (wwwflicker.com), Joan Bennett (unknown), Claire Trevor (Crack Up, 1946, RKO; jake-weird.blogspot.fr), Trevor (Murder, My Sweet, 1945, RKO, wwseattlepi.com)