Jazz Institute of Chicago

Bird Lives! (An Evan Horne Mystery)

Bird Lives!
An Evan Horne Mystery
By Bill Moody
248 pages, Walker & Co., $23.95
reviewed by Don Rose

Racing fans relish the mysteries of Dick Francis set at horse tracks; architecture buffs enjoy the exploits of Keith Miles' architect-detective Merlin Richards; theater aficionados revel in the detections of Simon Brett's alcoholic actor, Charles Paris; even bankers can count on a kindred detective hero in Emma Lathen's John Putnam Thatcher.

Now, and for the past five years, in a series of four books, we jazzniks have had a detective we can call our own. He is Evan Horne, an amiable, highly respected jazz pianist with a taste for Bill Evans (perhaps that's what inspired his name), who inhabits the turf between Los Angeles and Las Vegas.

Horne is the classic Hitchcockian hero who is drawn, accidentally and usually against his will, into an eccentric vortex of mystery, crime and killing—and, despite his amateur status in the crime-solving business, always manages to come up with a solution. Or a resolution, anyway—the endings are not always neat and mathematical, like a Perry Mason or Nero Wolfe yarn.

The stories are all set deep within the jazz world and often relate to jazz history—as when Horne tries to clear up the 40-year-old mystery of the untimely demise of tenor great Wardell Gray in the second volume in the series, "Death of a Tenor Man." In the third, "Sound of the Trumpet," the detective work is initially musicological, with Horne trying to determine whether some audio tapes indeed contain lost music of the giant Clifford Brown. The plot from there snakes its way into swindle and murder with a host of goofball characters to spice things up.
Horne is the fictional creation of Bill Moody, a multitalented jazz drummer and music critic who has just brought out what may be his best jazz mystery, "Bird Lives!" It's set around the delicious idea that some crazed musician or jazz fan is serially doing away with the likes of Kenny G, Boney James and their kindred "smooth jazz" millionaires. (No, the real musicians names are not used, but you know full well who the victims are supposed to be.)

Police find the words "Bird lives" scrawled on a wall in the room where one lite-jazz star has been stabbed to death and his alto saxophone badly battered. Clearly, this killing has a lot to do with music and musical taste. A police officer friend of Horne's—whom we met in earlier books—calls the pianist in for a little help, and that little help, naturally, winds up preoccupying the musician for 240 more pages.
Horne's knowledge of the music is, of course, essential to tracking down the killer and the motive. Moody uses jazz lore as exposition, with Horne educating the police, the FBI and everyone else about the music of Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane and Bill Evans. As in the earlier books, the exposition is mostly baby talk to knowledgable jazz fans, but you have to forgive him for that, since he's trying to reach out beyond us cognoscenti.

The plot takes a number of twists and keeps offering little surprises that keep you turning the pages—it becomes in part an odd stalker story with more than its share of weird characters popping up along the way. Horne will travel from LA to San Francisco to visit the church of John Coltrane and eventually play a gig with a jazz-lite band in Vegas in order to snare the perpetrator. Without giving up too much of the story, Horne finds himself personally enmeshed with an exceedingly clever killer via the telephone and his entire preoccupation with the case costs him his relationship with a girl friend of two books' standing—a relationship crippled even more by the presence of a female FBI profiler who has the hots for Horne. The killer also has a fine time tantalizing Horne and the cops by writing little haiku verses incorporating the titles of classic jazz songs and albums.

All this is set against the background of Horne's return to active playing. He, his drummer and bassist are in the process of rehearsing for a new CD—after finally recuperating from an injury that cost him the use of one hand. (Thus the title of his first book, "Solo Hand," in which the career-threatening injury took place.) It is a pleasure, by the way, to find Horne and most of the other musicians portrayed in an honest and non-bizarre way. They are authentic folk, dedicated to their art and with very little hip talk or hard drug use to carve them out as caricatures.
"Bird Lives!" fills you in on details of the previous books that are relevant to the plot and characters here; you don't need to have read the earlier books to enjoy this one, though taken in turn it's a delight to see the development of character and relationships. Which is not to say it is without color, flash and dazzle, as in the penultimate, tension-building concert scene leading to the final slam-bang encounter with the killer.

At the end, Horne decides to change his venue, at least for a while. Or, perhaps, Moody is setting us up for the next mystery, perhaps set in London, where he'll go mano-a-mano with one of those Agatha Christie detectives?

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