I have been hooked on Deb Grabien’s novels since I had the great good fortune to read the first of her Haunted Ballads series. What pulled me in right from the beginning was not only the characters and settings, but also the amount of research in each of these books. Here was a writer who could bring the past, with its rich musical and social history, right up to the doorstep of the present, and also into the scary and popular field of ghost stories.
So when I got wind that Grabien was about to launch a new series involving both music and mystery, before ever reading an advance review copy of Rock and Roll Never Forgets, I was already on board, both as a reader and bookseller. Those two distinctions – reader and bookseller – are important in my overview of this most entertaining and interest-grabbing series. As a reader I was completely taken from the opening sentence: “Good Evening, Wembley!” And boom, there I was in a front-row seat at rock and roll institution Blacklight’s closing show in London.
Grabien doesn’t miss a beat before you are with Blacklight in NY’s Madison Square Garden. In the opening chapters of Rock and Roll Never Forgets, the reader is introduced to Kinkaid and he, in turn, introduces us to the other four members of the band, all aging rockers, whose commitment to their music is only equaled by their commitment to each other. And deeply imbedded in each of these books is the author’s commitment to her readers.
As a bookseller, I came to the Kinkaid series at the East Bay launch of Rock and Roll Never Forgets, in 2008, but I only had one more year to market the book before retiring. I followed the lead from the dust jacket and sold it as a mystery. Ditto for the second book, While My Guitar Gently Weeps, also called “A JP Kinkaid Mystery.” I retired in the nick of time because thereafter, the series became “Book #4, 5, 6 and 7 of the JP Kinkaid Chronicles.” Are they mysteries (murder and mayhem) or chronicles (narrative recording of events)?
The answer, of course, is “yes” and “yes.” The first two are definitely mysteries. There is death by murder, there are clues and an eventual revealing of “who done it.” So is our hero guitarist Kinkaid a sleuth as well as a musician? Not at all; at least not the private eye sort. Kinkaid is more of an involved narrator with most of the sleuthing performed by Patrick Ormand, an NYPD and then SFPD cop who is eventually (by Book of Days, #5 of the Chronicles) hired by Blacklight as their own security chief.
Now that I’m out of the bookstore, I can sell the Chronicles, through my book review/blog, as just about anything, including mystery. The author has not only pushed the mystery envelope, she’s gleefully tossed it out. All of the Kinkaid books are novels first and then sort of mysteries – and then there are times, as in Graceland, Book #4, when the death is mercifully declared just a death and not murder. And sometimes Blacklight and its members are on the periphery of the killings, such as in Books #3 and #5, London Calling and Book of Days.
What all the Kinkaid Chronicles have in common is a cast of characters that are so completely developed that the reader may grow attached to a particular member of the band, a band spouse, a band member’s child or stepchild, or even (in JP’s case) a remarkably wise and loyal mother-in-law. And although mayhem occurs at some point in each of the novels, so do a heck of a lot of other things. Grabien is a master at giving a band instrument a starring role and it never ceases to amaze me how vividly and realistically each bit of information helps pull the reader intimately into the world of touring rock bands. And did I mention food? Kinkaid’s long-time girlfriend-turned-wife Bree is a caterer, and when the band family gets together at their San Francisco flat, whether for a full meal or lighter repast, the text is delicious.
Wherever Blacklight is playing, that location is nailed by Grabien, and even if the reader hasn’t been to that venue before, he or she would recognize it in a minute. What I was not prepared for when I read the first book was the realization that a successful touring rock band isn’t just a road trip, it’s a multinational business, and if Blacklight is any example, it’s no small potatoes. The logistical nightmares detailed in the Chronicles, from booking hotels to managing medical emergencies, give each of the stories a depth that strangely lifts them out of anything considered light reading.
All of the above being said, the strongest reason for admiring this series is Grabien’s talent for giving us characters who struggle, grow and mature with each new tale. I don’t think there’s a two dimensional character in any of the books. These musicians have been playing together for more than thirty years. If you know your rock history, you know they’ve somehow survived in a profession that includes drugs of all sorts, risky sex, monstrous egos, and, with fame and wealth, a dangerous insulation from the hundreds of responsibilities of ordinary adulthood. It’s been decades since any member of Blacklight has had to balance a checkbook or book a hotel room. They now face all the issues that come with aging, and they are all coming at long last to grapple with seriously growing up. Grabien’s description of JP Kinkaid’s multiple sclerosis, its effects on his career and his marriage, comes from her own battle with that disease. We read of death from cancer, disappointments in children, aging parents. For readers who have passed through those same years, her characters touch us deeply. Grabien has given them rich full lives, both musical and personal. They may be older, and certainly wiser, but they sustain their intense familial and love relationships.
Clearly, Grabien has given us two very remarkable and modern characters in JP and Bree. Just because they are older doesn’t mean that the fame and wealth (especially after Book of Days) are still not things to grapple with. It is the freshness of Grabien’s handling of this emotional growth that shines. That hardships (murders and health issues) become turning points in their lives is not surprising, but how the accumulation of these hardships brings JP and Bree to an awareness of their importance to each other is rather unexpected and arrived at without cliches. The stories not only build something powerful for the characters, but they do as much for the reader who shares JP and Bree’s difficult journey.
By the time you finish Uncle John’s Band, the distance JP and Bree have traveled becomes not only obvious, but richly satisfying. Grabien reminds us again in Book #6 of the Chronicles that she is in a class of her own when it comes to pulling the reader into the music of her stories. I may have given up piano lessons for horseback riding when I was a kid, but that doesn’t mean I wasn’t totally swept up in a sizzling studio scene in which musical composition and lyrics were combustible.
While being driven across the Golden Gate Bridge in Uncle John’s Band, JP looks around and remarks, “The Bay Area’s got some serious geography; no matter what else is going on or going wrong, the views are always there.” The same can be said for Deborah Grabien’s JP Kinkaid Chronicles.