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Billed as "a jazz mystery with a dash of romance," Florence Wetzel's murder-based thriller is that rare beast: a novel set in the jazz world which rings true in every detail. That alone makes it a pleasure to read. But Dashiki is also superbly well crafted, and it ramps up the tension to a nerve-wracking denouement.
You would expect any book written by Wetzel--an authoritative CD and book reviewer with All About Jazz--to be accurate on the jazz details, but you might not expect such an action-packed page-turner as Dashiki. Who knew? Commentating on a disc is one thing; creating a gripping whodunnit is another.
The story is set over a summer 2003 week in Hoboken, Manhattan and upstate New York (Wetzel wrote the book in 2004). It begins with its protagonist, jazz journalist Virginia Farrell, being shown a shoebox full of tapes, recorded by Naima Coltrane, of pianist Thelonious Monk and saxophonist John Coltrane's extended residency at the Five Spot club in New York City in 1957, and being asked to safeguard their delivery to the Monk and Coltrane estates. The donor of the tapes is Betty Brown, a dying singer who used to babysit for the Coltranes in the late 1950s. Within a few hours of her revelation to Farrell, Brown is murdered and the shoebox of tapes stolen.
Without giving too much away, Farrell--like another fictional amateur sleuth, Nancy Drew--has to find the murderer, keep her friend Vincent Garrideb, a jazz magazine editor suspected of the killing, out of jail, and recover the tapes. She also has to thwart an attempt on her own life, which she does with the help of a trumpet once owned by Miles Davis. But that's to get ahead of things. Along the way, there are enough red herrings to keep you guessing.
Wetzel's fictional characters are luminously observed. The mildly sociopath jazz magazine publisher, Bassinger Ffowlkes; his lecherous staff photographer, Joe Pascoe; Coltrane obsessive Mortimer Bartesque, who writes the magazine's Coltrane Corner column (and knows everything about the man right down to his shoe size); John Upgrove, an archivist at the Institute of Jazz Studies; veteran hard bop drummer Rex Royal; and more. Another delight is the way Wetzel weaves a dozen or so real jazz people, passed and still with us, into the story. These include reed player Sam Rivers, who sits in with Royal's band at a gig at the Blue Note; the Institute of Jazz Studies' Dan Morgenstern; and trumpeter Lee Morgan, who plays an offstage but dynamic role in the plot.
Along the way there's some romance, as Farrell and the jazz-ignorant Hoboken Detective, Robert Smith, initially antipathetic, become attracted to each other.
Wetzel has hit all the right notes here, and Dashiki (also published as an eBook) is highly recommended. It is a lot of fun and, no hyperbole, unputdownable.--
Review by Chris May, on AllAboutJazz.com, March 28, 2011