Blues for the Prince – Bart Spicer
Published in 1950, this hardboiled mystery was the second of about a dozen novels starring Philadelphia PI Carney Wilde. Wilde investigates a murder among the members of a band that still plays hot jazz (aka Dixieland) in the face of up-and-coming bebop. Admittedly, this novel has little action or detecting, but its setting, scenes and characterization make this outstanding enough to be included on many “best mystery” lists.
Spicer was a journalist so that implies he valued a clear plot and understandable language. His style is neither simple like James Cain nor showily fluent like Raymond Chandler, but he strikes a balance between concise and ornate. His dialogue is authentically hard-boiled without being cheesy (Cain’s failing, on his bad days), and his similes and metaphors are not self-conscious or over the top (Chandler’s failing, at times). The character of Wilde doesn’t crack wise nor is he given to mordant urban folk wisdom. His portrait of the weary homicide detective is realistic and humane.
Interesting to readers who like music would be the asides about Early Jazz, the kind of music that Buddy Bolden, Kid Ory, and JoeOliver played. Obviously, in a book about jazz, race is an unavoidable topic. Spicer makes clear that among the musicians, it was not an issue compared to the pitiless artistic judgments of “plays good music” versus “plays lame music.”
At the time, the critic for the New York Herald Tribune Book Review said that Spicer does an “excellent job . . . showing the relationship between whites and Negroes both in the unbiased world of jazz and the more deeply biased outside world.”