Thursday, August 4, 2011
Dashiki: A Jazz Mystery by Flo Wetzel
by Kurt Gottschalk
Jazzbos have a bad habit of making things … jazzy: jazz nativities, jazz brunches, jazz hands. It's perhaps a product of the underdog psychology, a bit of defensiveness about having occupied so much more marketplace real estate 40 or 50 years ago than today, a desperate attempt to prove they can change with the times. This is relevant here only because it's so worth noting that in her “jazz mystery” Florence Wetzel has the appearances of falling into the trappings of jazz as an adjective, but wonderfully manages not to.
There are two basic things Wetzel had to do to make her jazz mystery work: One was to write a good novel about jazz and the other was to write a good mystery. Falling short of either of those would have meant running the risk of being quaint. And unfortunately, the book's title, Dashiki, and its cover, with funky font and Afro-festooned model, don't do much to convince otherwise. That the design makes sense within the context of the story only matters post-point-of-purchase.
But this is classic book-by-cover-judging, and Wetzel's too smart to err on either the jazz or the mystery count. Instead, she has crafted a story which works as a finely-tuned thriller while fitting snugly within jazz history. The double-murder in her tale involves Shinwell Johnson – a b-list trumpeter who moved in circles with Art Blakey and John Coltrane and was just beginning to have his moment some 40 years ago when he was killed – and Betty Brown, his one-time girlfriend whose current-day killing is the crux of the book. A third crime gives the tale its impetus: Brown was in possession of rare tapes of Coltrane playing with Thelonious Monk which Johnson had stolen from Trane's house. When her body was discovered, the tapes were gone.
Wetzel's deep knowledge of jazz enables her to construct a thoroughly believable story, and if it might be a bit name-droppy at times (presumably not every reader is going to follow every mention of Alfred Lion or Lee Morgan) the stripe of her fiction never clashes with the plaid of nonfiction in which she's she's placed it. Her pacing and use of foils and humor make for a fine suspense yarn. But more importantly, she gives her characters rich emotional depth and writes affectionately about the jazz geeks who populate her world, from the heroine journalist caught up in the crime to the round of acquaintances who are key to the plot's unfolding. (In full disclosure, I've known Wetzel and admired her work for years, and have a cameo role as one of those geeks.) Ultimately, it's Wetzel's gift for creating rich and empathetic characters that makes her jazz mystery such an enjoyable and unpredictable read.