Looking for Chet Baker:
An Evan Horne Mystery
by Bill Moody
Walker & Co., 253 pages, $24.95
Reviewed by Don Rose
When we last left Evan Horne, the jazz world's own pianist-private eye, he had brought to justice a serial killer who was knocking off lite-jazz saxophonists in the vein of Kenny, Boney et al. The capture came in a harrowing episode that might have added Horne's name to the growing toll, but of course that couldn't happen because then there would be no more books in the series. It did, however, leave Horne with some emotional scars to go along with the once-damaged hand that almost ended his musical career.
We leave it to the reader to determine whether the greater service to society was rendered by Horne, in capturing the killer, or by the killer, who was ridding the world of the Kennys and Boneys. That said, the present volume, number five in the series, takes up one of the jazz world's unsolved questions: Did the wonderful trumpet player/vocalist Chet Baker jump to his death from his room in an Amsterdam hotel in 1988? Was he pushed? Was it a drug-related accident?
The search in this instance in many ways parallels the search for the killer of Wardell Grey, the seminal bop saxophonist in the second Horne mystery, "Death of a Tenor Man." Through a series of events, Horne—now healed and apparently playing as well as ever—finds himself first in London then Amsterdam, reluctantly as always, drawn into finding the answer by way of finding a disappearing friend.
The friend is Ace Buffington, a jazz-oriented academic hard at work now on a Baker biography. Horne refuses to join the Chet chase and become co-author of the biography (which bears only coincidental relationship to the actual Baker biography brought out earlier this year by yet another author). Buffington, however, lures Horne into a long game of hide and seek throughout the city of Amsterdam and eventually back to the States and back again.
Along the way Horne picks up with tenor-man Fletcher Paige, an older, black expatriate musician drawn along the lines of Ben Webster. The pair winds up rooming together and working a duet gig at a local club. The verbal interaction between them as they work out their music has a solid ring. There is also a lot of didactic exposition about the music and its history, and about black expatriate musicians, that slows down the story a bit—as in the other volumes—but is obviously necessary for readers who may not have the keen background of you and me.
Details of Chet Baker's life—the musical rise and fall (no pun intended) of a legendary junkie-hero—are nicely woven into the narrative. In some cases Moody incorporates real characters, such as the late pianist Russ Freeman, who also provided an introduction and appreciation of Chet for the book.
There are, of course, a series of run-ins and odd adventures with various Dutch cops, jazzniks, hangers on, junkies and dealers—to say nothing of babes and prostitutes and just the teeniest bit of sex. And, of course, no trip to Amsterdam would be complete without a visit to one of its legal marijuana/hash-hish bars. The latter is thoroughly integrated into the story, to be sure.
As always, Moody's depiction of his corner of the jazz world, given the need for the external exposition, is both entertaining and authentic. Horne is, at the same time, a very low-key, relatively cerebral character with emotional and romantic complexities. His lines of inquiry do not for the most part take him into very many taut or exciting situations, but there's always just enough there to keep you caring and turning the page. Things develop slowly, here and in the earlier stories, and rarely do we have the kind of puzzle—clue—clue—blind alley—clue—resolution stories that keep us coming back to other private eyes or police procedurals. The resolutions, thus, are sometimes less than satisfying.
Which does not mean I'm going to tell you how this one turns out. I expect, however, it will add to the legend of Chet Baker—who remains the sad, sympathetic but elusive romantic hero here, and not the "evil junkie" others have made him.