Friday, January 25, 2008

Nine Fingers

Nine Fingers
By Thom August
Leisure Books mass original

In the past, Chicago jazz has had to cope with the Windy City’s history of mob activity. For instance, the venerable jazz club The Green Mill was once co-owned by Capone enforcer “Machinegun” Jack McGurn. Pseudonymous author Thom August has renewed the association between jazz and Chicago’s organized crime in the new novel, Nine Fingers, the first mass market original to be reviewed here.

Fingers starts with a mob hit that does not make apparent sense. The syndicate’s top assassin, simply known as “the Cleaner,” kills a visiting businessmen and part-time jazz musician as he sits-in with a local ensemble. What appears to be a case of mistaken identity leads to more attacks on the group. It all seems to trace back to a mafia princess, and another visiting musician, mysteriously missing his pinky finger (and supplying the title). Fortunately, the investigating detective in need of career rehabilitation once gigged professionally, allowing him to go undercover with the band.

No real-life musicians make cameo appearances, but August sounds familiar with the lives of working musicians. The chief protagonist of Fingers and one of three perspectives from which the story is told is Vinnie Amatucci, the band’s pianist and business manager. Amatucci shows a talent for meticulous work, like tuning the piano and balancing the sound system before gigs. At one point he ruminates:

“Jo Jones always said that if you can hear the rhythm section of a jazz band it means they’re fucking up. You’re supposed to feel them, unless one of them is soloing. And I believe that. The trumpet and sax are up front, physically, and their sound is supposed to be up front, aurally. That’s the nature of the music.” (p. 66)

Whoever August is, he writes musical details convincingly. Those passages of Fingers reminded me of the jazz mysteries of Bill Moody, but this is much more hardboiled than the Evan Horne novels. The language is saltier and there is considerably more drug use and graphic violence. Particularly gratuitous is a way over-the-top sex scene near the novel’s midpoint which is quite explicit and frankly defies believability within the context of the story. (I won’t quote from it, but the dogs out there can find it starting at p. 184) Unfortunately, August is stuck with the ramifications of that interlude for the remainder of the novel, creating additional issues of credibility in later scenes.

What is believable is his depiction of the dynamics within the combo. The musicians are well delineated characters, like the under-achieving, over-thinking Amatucci. August deserves credit for not making the leader, trumpeter Paul Powell, into another icy stand-in for Miles Davis (which has been done far too often). Instead he is cerebral in interesting ways, and has some nice scenes with Amatucci. August describes one such encounter from the pianist’s perspective, as he approaches the trumpeter practicing long tones:

“I gave him a little nod and he turned back toward the lake, and continued for another few minutes, working steadily up in his register until it must have required a phenomenal effort to hold each note. But each note was like a rounded little pearl, fat and shiny and hard, even the high ones.” (p. 329)

There are some nice moments in Fingers, and there are some ridiculous ones as well. To its credit, jazz is not treated as mere window dressing—rather it plays an important role in the story. Usually jazz related novels are of the depressingly literary variety, which makes Fingers a real change of pace. If it was not twenty degrees outside, it could be described as a good beach read, despite (or because of) an occasional excess. It will be interesting to see how August develops as a hard-boiled jazz novelist, if Fingers spawns a series. After all, he has the music down cold.