Steve Liskow is a panelist and mentor for both Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime and has been named a finalist for both the Edgar Award and the Shamus Award. His next novel, The Nowhere Man (hello, Beatle fans), will be published in May. Learn more about Steve and his books at his website.
Rock & Roll Mystery
When I started college, I was a big British Invasion fan. I also liked the Monkees and Paul Revere and the Raiders, all of which helps you guess my age. In the fall of my sophomore year, I took a date to see Martha and the Vandellas, and the opening act was some guys called the Muddy Waters Blues Band. I’d never heard of them, but they blew me out of the water and I dropped my teeny-bopper allegiance and became a blues fan on the spot.
About two months later, I bought my first guitar, slightly better than what you’d find at Toys ‘R’ Us now, and began struggling to fingerpick the blues. I wanted to become the next Charley Patton, but sounded more like General Patton. Small hands, a lack of talent, and a wrist broken playing football didn’t help, but I still play. Since then, I’ve bought, sold or traded about twenty-five guitars and I can’t even guess how many amplifiers. I perform at local open mic nights, and I love it.
The writing epiphany came several years ago when my wife and I returned to Michigan for my high school reunion and I met a classmate—a woman I never knew then—who was now a session keyboard player in Detroit. In fact, her escort was the former drummer from Bob Seger’s Silver Bullet band. That meeting inspired my Chris “Woody” Guthrie PI series, set in Detroit. I envisioned the character as a guitar player and set out to list song titles that might also suggest a mystery. Right now, that list is five pages long and most of my published titles use songs or a line from a song.
The manuscript collected over 100 rejections under four different titles and dozens of revisions. Woody’s name changed three times, too, but the basic premise never varied. Years later, one of my musician friends commented that it sounded like the Bobby Fuller murder in 1966, and I admitted that I hadn’t thought about that at the time. I self-published the book in 2013 as Blood On the Tracks (the title of a Bob Dylan album), and it placed in the top ten of over 1500 entries for the Writer’s Digest Self-Published Novel Awards.
Now, Chris “Woody” Guthrie has his own series. He and girlfriend Megan Traine, an ex-keyboard player, get involved in cases that have a music slant. The first book solved the cold case of a rock star who died in his car years before, and it got some decent reviews. Oh Lord, Won’t You Steal Me a Mercedes Benz involves a car thief, the Detroit Mob, and a pregnant stripper. One of the important clues is a Gibson Les Paul guitar, which a man bought only weeks before someone kills him. Under one of his earlier names, Woody solves the murder of a rock singer in “Stranglehold,” which won the Black Orchid Novella Award for 2009, too.
I gave Woody my general appearance and musical preferences, so he plays a Fender Stratocaster for electric and a Gibson Hummingbird for acoustic. Now that he’s hooked up with Megan, a real musician, he practices more often and he’s a much better player than I am. In the third book, slated for fall of 2016, he’s learning to play “Crossroad Blues,” a classic by Robert Johnson, the King of the Delta Blues (You may know Eric Clapton’s reworking of it with Cream). Johnson was murdered at the age of 27, and a line from that song is my title: Dark Gonna Catch Me Here.
Music helps me write because a good song involves rhythm and harmony, too. The chords and rhythm in a song are like the subplots and pacing in a good story, and I like to change points of view so everyone gets a solo.
Does it work? Well, I know the title of the fourth Woody Guthrie book that I won’t start writing until next fall. And I still have about 325 song titles left on my list.
Oh Lord, Won’t You Steal Me a Mercedes Benz
When “Hot Rod” Lincoln steals a Mercedes, he doesn’t know Tony Fortunato’s dead in the trunk, but the Detroit cops charge him with murder anyway. He turns to PI Chris “Woody” Guthrie for help, and Guthrie discovers that Tony, who married into the Mob, may have been embezzling—talk about biting the hand that feeds you.
Everyone wants that money, but nobody knows where it is: Tony’s cheating wife, his pregnant stripper girlfriend, his crime boss uncle…or whoever really killed him. Guthrie needs to find the money and the killer before the meter runs out.