Roughly a month before her killing, I met Lorraine Cobble, the professional songcatcher, in the smoky, candlelit depths of the Café Mercutio. Actually, met is going too far. Observed. Yes, I observed her when she stormed over to our table to verbally explode all over the troubadour known as Byron Spires, a handsome young rat if ever there was one.
Those are the kickoff lines of my new novel, The Haunting Ballad. In seeking a setting for the latest entry in my mid-1950s series, I asked myself what was going on at that time that might make for a compelling backdrop to murder. I wound up latching onto the dynamic folk music revival that was just starting to take off in ’57, the year my tale take place. In cities such as New York, Boston, and San Francisco, this movement overlapped with the defiant Beat scene led by such notables as Ginsburg, Ferlinghetti, and Kerouac. Manhattan’s Greenwich Village, in particular, became an epicenter for all manner of colorful, vigorous, quirky goings-on.
And so I found my story. In the midst of that vibrant Bohemian atmosphere, a controversial songcatcher—a folk song collector—has died. Either she climbed to the roof of her apartment building and leapt or, as some believe, she was pushed. Enter my detectives, Plunkett and O’Nelligan. When I first created these fellows for my previous novel, The Séance Society, I went for an unusual spin on the conventional buddy team. Lee Plunkett is a young, reluctant private eye. He inherited the family business from his tough-guy father, and his deductive skills are somewhat on the meager side. Accordingly, he relies on his friend, gentleman sleuth Mr. O’Nelligan. Older and wiser than Lee, the Irish immigrant provides wit, logic and a sense of knightly honor to the partnership Also on hand is Lee’s “perpetual fiancée” Audrey. In the course of this case, Audrey is drawn to.one of the folk singers—the aforementioned handsome young rat—much to Lee’s dismay.
I always try to provide readers with a wide assortment of possible culprits. In this case, the songcatcher’s death leads Plunkett and O’Nelligan to a very mixed band of suspects. There’s the ex-con blues singer, the eccentric coffee house owner, the Beat princess with a penchant for nude paintings, the rowdy trio of Irish balladeers, and a former Civil War drummer boy who, at a hundred and five, prides himself on his relative robustness. And just to add a bit of supernatural spice, there’s the ill-tempered medium who labels herself a “ghost chanter”—meaning the dead teach her songs from beyond the veil.
In doing my research for this novel, I was able to stay several days with an old friend who lives in the Village. This gave me the opportunity to wander those sidewalks and cobblestoned streets and imagine a world half a century gone. At one point, I remembered an old Simon and Garfunkel song, named for the roadway I was walking down—Bleecker Street. One specific line came to me: “I saw a shadow touch a shadow’s hand.” For me, searching at that moment for my tale of mystery and secrets, that image seemed particularly fitting.
Michael Nethercott is the author of the O’Nelligan/Plunkett mystery series. His debut novel The Séance Society (Minotaur/Thomas Dunne) is followed by the newly released The Haunting Ballad. Nethercott has won The Black Orchid Novella Award (for traditional mysteries), the Vermont Playwrights Award, the Nor’easter Play Writing Contest, the Vermont Writers’ Award, and the Clauder Competition (Best Vermont Play.) He has also been a Shamus Award finalist. His tales of mystery and the supernatural have appeared in numerous periodicals and anthologies including Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, Best Crime and Mystery Stories of the Year, Thin Ice: Crime Stories by New England Writers, Crimestalkers Casebook, and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.