Back to a World Where Mystery and Music Go Hand
sets of clues - some clever, some sorrowful - are woven throughout
"Swing," Rupert Holmes's brainy new mystery novel. One set is
aimed at the genre's usual pursuit, unraveling a crime. The other
hints at a far more dangerous pursuit for the author, nothing
less than a grieving father's attempt to find solace in his art
while entertaining his readers.
This atmospheric book takes place in 1940, against the backdrop
of the Golden Gate International Exposition in the San Francisco
Bay and the world of big-band swing. Its hero, Ray Sherwood, is
a musician shadowed by the death of his young daughter. Years
later, he regularly entertains audiences with a jaunty song he
wrote called "Beef Lo Mein" that appears to be an amusing riff
on the absurdity of life.
Each picnic holds the threat of rain:
In disbelief, some call it grief
I call it Beef Lo Mein.
But Ray's ex-wife isn't fooled by the audience's appreciative
laughter. "It's a way to keep your own grief fresh each night,
isn't it?" she tells him.
It doesn't give away the book's big secret but reveals much about
Mr. Holmes to learn that he wrote "Beef Lo Mein" in the late 1980's,
not long after his 10-year-old daughter, Wendy, died, in 1986,
of a brain tumor. ("Swing" is dedicated to her.) Up until that
devastating moment, it had been a triumphant year for the multitalented
Mr. Holmes. His first Broadway musical, "The Mystery of Edwin
Drood," for which he wrote the book, lyrics and score, had won
five Tony Awards. Before that, he had been best known for his
pop hit, "Escape" (a k a "The Piña Colada" song).
"Beef Lo Mein" was meant to be part of a musical, also called
"Swing," that Mr. Holmes was working on when Wendy died. He tried
to continue, but could not.
"Not knowing how to survive, I wrote and wrote and wrote and
wrote and wrote," said Mr. Holmes, a tall man with a neatly trimmed
beard, dressed in black, speaking in a recent interview with humor,
wistfulness and exuberant intelligence. "But Wendy's tragedy invaded
the plotline, and I ended up writing one of the darkest musicals
ever written, and realized I couldn't do that, it wasn't right."
He shelved "Swing" and pretty much stopped writing music. "To
try to compose I would have had to write things that would have
broken my heart in ways I couldn't cope with," he said.
To understand the severity of this self-imposed decree, consider
Mr. Holmes's lineage and his résumé. His father played alto saxophone;
his younger brother is an opera singer. Mr. Holmes grew up in
Nyack, N.Y., listening to all kinds of music, from Mozart to Bob
Dylan. Mr. Holmes, now 58, played in a rock band in high school,
but also amused himself by studying "Glenn Miller's Guide to Orchestral
Arrangements." He went on to write arrangements for Barbra Streisand,
for Japanese zipper commercials and for high school marching bands.
He has been a cabaret singer and a pop star.
Perhaps the culmination of his ambition was "Edwin Drood," a
musical that combined his love of mysteries, music and theater.
By any measure it was a great success: fine reviews, enthusiastic
audiences and all those Tony's. It has had an afterlife on college
and high school stages in part because Mr. Holmes allowed audiences
to vote on the murderer every night and gave different actors
the chance to be leads.
After his daughter's death, he focused on writing words, not
music. Again, no single form contained his almost alarming energy.
He wrote plays, including "Accomplice" and "Say Goodnight Gracie,"
and a television show for AMC, the cable channel, called "Remember
WENN." Two years ago he published his first novel, "Where the
Truth Lies," now being made into a film starring Kevin Bacon and
Not surprisingly, he doesn't sleep much. He tends to work from
11 p.m. to 6 a.m. and then dozes for three or four hours.
The literate part of the complex Holmes equation took root in
boyhood. In high school he worked at a local library sweeping
up and reshelving books, pausing to read the dust jackets and
skim the insides. "It would take me five or six hours to put away
100 books," he said. "I am extremely well read, especially in
terms of dust jackets."
While Mr. Holmes gave up "Swing" the musical because of the music
in it, "Swing" the novel has become part of his return to song.
The book's crucial clues crop up in songs. When Jonathan Karp,
the editor in chief of Random House and a longtime fan, read the
manuscript, he asked Mr. Holmes if he could record the songs so
that a CD of them could be included with the book. Thus, like
his main character, Ray, Mr. Holmes found himself writing and
arranging songs that were crucial to the plot. In a way, he has
turned the book into a new kind of musical production. On book
tour stops in Los Angeles and San Francisco he will sing as well
Mr. Holmes may resemble Ray, but they are different. Mr. Holmes,
for example, hasn't taken refuge on the road but lives in Scarsdale,
N.Y., with the woman he first dated in seventh grade and married
at 21. After Wendy's death, they had two sons, the younger of
which is severely autistic.
"I have certain skills," said Mr. Holmes. "I can make people
laugh and make sounds that resemble singing. I'm probably the
only mystery writer and Edgar Award winner who has sung on 'American
Bandstand.' No matter how inflated I might get there's always,
at a moment's notice, something to bring me back to reality."