Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Green Mill Murder

The Green Mill Murder
By Kerry Greenwood
Poisoned Pen Press

Australia has its own jazz tradition, including modernist artists like Don Burrows, John Sangster, and Bernie McGann. If Americans are familiar with Oz jazz, it is most likely such postwar artists featured in the great little documentary Beyond El Rocco. Written in 1993, but only now published in America, Kerry Greenwood’s Green Mill Murder incorporates elements of the early Australian jazz scene in a mystery set in Melbourne’s great lost dance hall.

The Green Mill held a roughly comparable place in Australian music history as did the Savoy or Paramount ballrooms in America. Unfortunately, very little survives to document the dance palace beyond the memories of its patrons. As Green Mill opens, one dance marathon contestant will not survive beyond page one.

During the initial investigation, Greenwood’s amateur sleuth Phryne (rhymes with Briney) Fisher finds herself flirting with the leader of the featured jazz band. Despite the fresh corpse, Greenwood writes light-hearted banter for them:

“‘Put on thy gown, look not so pale,’ capped Tintagel Stone unexpectedly. ‘I tell thee, Duncan’s dead, and cannot come out of’s grave.’

Phryne looked her surprise, and he smiled a devastating smile, showing white teeth. Tintagel Stone, Phryne thought, would bear watching.” (p. 6)

Their emerging attraction leads to tutorials in Chicago-style jazz from Stone, which are not always entirely accurate. He tells Fisher:

“The old New Orleans style used three instruments as the core of the band—trombone, trumpet, and clarinet—but the white bands were using all sorts of things: piano, violin, banjo. So we had Chicago style.” (p. 41)

Somehow I think Jelly Roll Morton would take issue with that, but it might well reflect then contemporary misconceptions.

Midway through, what started as a Roaring Twenties mystery, morphs into a bush-country family drama. While Fisher is an almost painfully plucky heroine, she does have her charm in what is basically a cozy, with a touch of the “if-she-had-only-known” style mystery. Regardless, it is nice to see a writer try to recapture one of Australia’s lost musical shrines.