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Mike Falco for The New York Times

Rupert Holmes, creator of the musical "The Mystery of Edwin Drood," is the author of "Swing," a mystery that comes with a CD featuring songs by Mr. Holmes that are crucial to the plot.





 

Back to a World Where Mystery and Music Go Hand in Hand

By JULIE SALAMON

Two 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.

Final lyric:

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 Colin Firth.

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 as read.

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."


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