She’s quietly brought us four different semi-mystical cat and amateur sleuth mystery series over the past decade — and some edgy nonfiction before that. Now Boston author Clea Simon lets her inner rock ‘n roller out of the back room and rips into a dark and compelling murder mystery of Boston’s music nightlife in WORLD ENOUGH, due to release on November 1.
The book roots in Simon’s own passion for rock ‘n roll and the feisty bands that brought original rock to “the scene.” She’s been a denizen of that world herself — check out her moody and detailed article from this past summer, reviving memories of the Kenmore Square nightclub called the Rathskeller, better known as “the Rat”:
When R.E.M. wanted to play a club, the night after headlining a show at Harvard, they dropped in on the Rat. When David Bowie and Iggy Pop were in town for a gig at the Harvard Square Theater in 1977 and wanted to hear some music, they hung out there. Although the club’s reputation had declined before its 1997 closing, by then the grungy music room had hosted the likes of The Police, The Ramones, Talking Heads, Sonic Youth, Joan Jett, Husker Du, Metallica, and a thousand local bands — including some, like The Cars, that would go on to worldwide fame. [Read the whole article here.]
Tara Winton’s on a nostalgia trip of sorts, when she hangs out in a local club to hear a music group from the old days, the Whirled Shakers. Their music “still gets her going,” even though she knows she’s part of an aging group of fans who miss the old locales that have long since become condos, parking garages, the new city where youth and love flourish. The groupies may still own leather jackets, but their hair’s gone gray and they look, hmm, kind of out of shape if they get up to dance. There’s a long route back to the good old days, but the passage is one way only and Tara is grieving.
Soon there’s more than just the “scene” to mourn — one of the musicians, Frank, is dead, supposedly some strange form of suicide, and Tara needs to attend the funeral. Reflecting on the crowd that still shares these moments of her life, Tara has to admit: “We’re sickly. We have fewer successful marriages and happy families. Too many of us have died.”
But it’s just a matter of bad luck, isn’t it? Like Frank’s death?
Maybe not. And when Tara accepts a journalistic assignment to retrace the old bands and track down the players — both the musicians and the most vital of their groupies — she begins to realize she’s missed a lot of signals over the years. Things were never as safe or loving as she wanted to believe. Even her own ex-husband is pulling away from her friendship now, leaving her newly vulnerable as she pries apart the old frictions and competitions, to find out what’s now going on around her.
Simon’s murderous imagination, honed over years of having her mysteries creep further and further to the dark side, gives us Tara’s believable naiveté and frustrated persistence. She also paints in vivid color the sense of the really hot music as a group grows into its own legend, as well as the abrupt emergence of a star:
Chris Crack — the name stuck, despite its affectation — didn’t enter so much as pounce. A glad rock throwback in a woman’s eyelet blouse two sizes too small, he leapt onstage, grabbed the mic stand and swung it — narrowly missing Jerry — before opening his mouth for a caterwaul that had Nieve at the bar looking up, open-mouthed. Dropping from the falsetto scream into a rough baritone, he delivered the lyrics of the Aught Nine oldie — “Beer for Fools” — as if it were the gospel. And when he tore into a new song — Tara, at least, had never heard it — he pushed back into that falsetto, letting it fade away into something as soft as a lover’s sigh,
By the end of the set, he had lost the shirt, and under its sheen of sweat, his pale torso glistened. He looked like what he was fated to become: a rock star. And all five people who heard him that night knew it.
Tara’s search for the truth of both the rock ‘n roll past and her present conflicts takes her down dark paths in rough company. And the answers turn out to have everything to do with how human we all are … and how the backbeat can seize us and turn us into wild ones, even now.
The publisher is Severn House; the book’s available for pre-order now, and since Severn House doesn’t have huge first printings, a pre-order might be wise for collectors. Simon’s mid-air twist into this sharp-clawed noir is well worth reading, and I hope is the first of more to come.
Oh, and if you don’t know the source of the title … try looking up “world enough and time” in your search bar (smile).