Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Crime Fiction on a EuroPass: Amsterdam & Rotterdam

The train is pulling into Centraal Station in Amsterdam. Already I can smell the fragrant aroma of local baked goods and local baked people. Everyone knows Amsterdam is home to all those brown cafes where coffee and pot are sold in equal quantities, right? Well, maybe total sales tip the scale in favor of the magical weed. People tend to think of two things when Amsterdam is mentioned - pot and sex. But do you ever think of jazz music? Maybe you will now.

Evan Horne is a jazz piano player who happens to have an unfortunate habit of getting involved in music related crimes. He was created by Bill Moody, writer and jazz musician himself, and appeared in seven books so far. In his fourth outing, Looking for Chet Baker, Horne finds himself in the European playground for pleasure seekers of all types which also happens to be the city in which Baker died.

Seems a university professor acquaintance, Ace Buffington, is researching the mysterious death of Baker who fell out of a window at the Hotel Prins Hendrik back in 1988. He hopes Horne will meet him in Amsterdam and join in his adventure. When Horne arrives at the hotel Buffington is nowhere to be found. He seems to have vanished without a trace. He did, however, leave behind a portfolio with all his research on Baker stuffed behind a radiator in his hotel room. Horne is faced with a mystery again. What happened to Ace? And is his disappearance related to his work on Chet Baker and Baker's violent and seemingly accidental death?

Chet Baker memorial plaque outside Hotel Prins Hendrik
What I most enjoyed about this book was all the jazz music history and the parts dealing with music and the musician's mindset. You learn that Amsterdam has been the chosen city of exile for several ex-pat musicians in addition to Baker. You also get insight into the creative life of a jazz musician and what makes him tick. The writing about Horne's improv sessions perfectly encapsulates this kind of thinking. And one of the characters -- Fletcher Paige, an American sax player living in Amsterdam -- has some insightful comments about Horne's skills as a piano player ("...you looked like you were going to climb right in that piano.") reveal him to be the perfect personality type to sit back, reflect and observe, and take everything in. Interestingly, these are also the qualities of a good detective. No surprise that Horne is compelled to solve the mystery of Ace and Chet Baker.

The city comes alive in a different way than most books set in Amsterdam. Jazz music colors every scene. There's even a side trip to Rotterdam. But the presence of Chet Baker's ghost takes over. There are sections devoted to the trumpeter's final days interspersed within the mystery narrative. At one point Horne succumbs to the temptation of the magical weed, buys a particularly strong strain at one of the cafes and after smoking it, has a similarly strong hallucination. He imagines he sees Chet climbing up the drainpipe outside of the Hotel Prins Hendrik and Horne chases after him, but under the influence of the drug he doesn't make it up the pipe very far.

Bimhuis - Amsterdam music venue known for jazz
I liked the jazz music portions more than the crime story plot. I may check out others in the series, but a warning to anyone unfamiliar with this series. Do not start with this one. The previous book Bird Lives! will be completely ruined for you if you do. Evan Horne talks about that book in which he faces a mad serial killer and the killer's identity is revealed along with much of the story in that book. Also, Chapter 2 consists of a flashback of sorts where he seeks out a therapist who specializes in post traumatic stress disorder and he talks even more about he experiences in Bird Lives! as well as two other books in the series.

Evan Horne Jazz Music Mysteries
Solo Hand (1994)
Death of a Tenor Man (1995)
Sound of the Trumpet (1997)
Bird Lives! (1999)
Looking for Chet Baker (2002)
Shades of Blue (2008)
Fade to Blue (2011)


  1. John: I enjoyed the post. I have been in Amsterdam a couple of times for short visits. I would like to spend a longer time in the city. I found very interesting the jazz information.

  2. Thanks for this contribution John

  3. Bill -

    My first and only visit to Amsterdam was one of the best trips I ever had. I was alone and young and ripe for adventure of all kinds. I have very fond memories of my wild time there. A trip filled with "first time" experiences of all kinds. I'd love to go back some day.

  4. Well, here's another author I have to look into somewhere down the road. The jazzy theme sounds intriguing. ;)

  5. I shall have to echo TomCat's comments as this is a new author for me, but sounds fascinating. Amsterdam can be wonderful but is certainly best avoided in winter in my experience ...

  6. I like Chet Baker and music-related films and TV (just watched the first season of TREME and really look forward to the rest). I'd think it would be hard to make music come alive in print, but the element of mystery about Baker's death sounds like great material for a novel.

    Haven't been to Amsterdam myself since I was young and single. Your comments bring it back for me.