I met Stephen Metzger way back in 1989 when he walked into the Wynkoop Brewing Co. in lower downtown Denver. I was behind the bar. He was working on a guidebook to Colorado for Moon Publications. We got to chatting. We quickly realized we didn’t have much in common other than books, writing, baseball, music, more music, travel, and beer.
We stayed in touch. Steve hired me to write a few sidebars for the guidebook, we took in a ballgame (with kids) on one of his trips, and my wife and I stayed at his home out in Chico, California. Over the years, we traded lots of music and music tips including lots of conversation about our shared appreciation for Van the Man Morrison.
Now, Steve is out with his first full-length novel, a mystery set in California: Between Rock and Hard Places. It’s not a shocker that it involves music–in this case, sordid doings that connect back to a tragic airplane crash that took the life of a famous singer back in the 1970’s. Yes, airplane crashes and rock stars. It happens.
A full review follows, below. First, Steve was kind enough to answer a few questions about the book by email.
Question: Given that Between Rock and Hard Places is loaded with music and bands, I have to ask if you cranked some tunes when you were writing this one? Was there a playlist that accompanied the work on this, or maybe one in your head?
Stephen Metzger: I didn’t listen to music as I was writing (I never do) but it’s always in my head. The narrator teaches a course at Marin Community College in the history of rock ‘n’ roll, so some of what was going through my head was whatever class he was preparing for, including the British Invasion (Beatles, Stones, etc.) and the ’60-‘70s San Francisco Bay Area music scene (Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Quicksilver Messenger Service, etc.). At the same time, The Johnny Sands Band–the band at the center of the story–played southern rock, so I also had the Allman Brothers, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and Marshall Tucker in mind. Additionally, the band was influenced by a wide range of music—Johnny Sands’ favorite song was “Danny Boy,” and the band members grew up on the Carter Family. Finally, Johnny Sands was writing hit songs of his own, so I had to write at least parts of some songs in my head (and on the page). In fact, the lyrics to one play a big part in the story line, including the murder. So, I guess if there were a “play list” that accompanies this book, it would be about the craziest, most eclectic juke box you could imagine.
Question: What inspired the story? What was the initial spark?
Stephen Metzger: I was in Clovis, New Mexico, in the summer of 1988, researching a travel guide to the state, when I drove by the Norman Petty Recording Studio, where Buddy Holly had recorded. Buddy Holly and the Crickets would drive across the border from Lubbock, Texas, Holly’s home town. It wasn’t open for visitors—it’s now a museum, open by appointment only—but it got me thinking about Holly. I’d long been a fan. I knew that Holly had married Maria Elena Santiago just a few months before the plane crash that killed him, and I knew that Maria was pregnant when he died. I also knew that she had miscarried shortly after learning about the crash from the television news, perhaps from the trauma. I wondered: what if Buddy Holly had had a son? Would he be a musician? Would he be carrying on his father’s legacy?
Well, that’s not what the book’s about, but it did provide the spark. Instead, I wrote about a ‘50s teen idol who in fact was killed in a plane crash, under more mysterious circumstances than Holly’s (weather and pilot error), and the possible murder of his drummer, many years later, who had just finished writing a book about the early days of the band. What happened the night of the crash would have come to light in the book, but all traces of the manuscript disappeared. I wrote about a hundred pages of the book (on a very primitive computer) in New Mexico motel rooms after spending my days driving and hiking around taking notes and photographs. When I got back to California, I had to get to work on the travel book, as well as back to my job teaching writing at California State University, Chico–and my new job as the father of a baby girl, born that November. I set the detective novel aside for a while. A long while. By the time I got back to it, I realized that the story needed updating if I was going to set it in the present. The surviving band members would be too old, if they were even still alive, and authors (Johnny Sands’ drummer) would be sending electronic files of their books, not hard copy, to publishers. Plus, I had to work in all the other new technology: cell phones, surveillance cameras, etc. So I moved the plane crash up about 20 years, and made the band a ‘70s southern-rock group instead of a ‘50s Buddy Holly/Elvis-type group.
Question: What was the hardest thing for you about setting up the mystery elements?
Stephen Metzger: The hardest part was letting the PI’s investigation unfold naturally and trying to keep straight who knew what when, not too much too soon, or at the last minute (last few pages). Also: setting it up so the killer’s identity would make sense at the end, without A) Making it obvious early on; B) Making it seem like I’d “tricked” the reader.
I also had to be careful to get the stuff about the murder(s) right, specifically regarding heart conditions and poisons. (And that’s all I’m gonna say about that…)
Another difficult part of writing the book was trying to capture dialogue accurately, and I appreciate this opportunity to talk about a part of the book where I fear I might have dropped the ball. The first language of one of the (minor) characters is Spanish, and she speaks English with an accent. I tried to write the dialogue so it would sound like how she really would talk, but I wonder if it might come across as racist, or at least insensitive—I have her saying “reever” instead of “river.” In trying to get it right, I hope I didn’t get it wrong.
Question: Did you take the outline-first approach before you started writing or did you just dive in?
Stephen Metzger: I just jumped right in but realized fairly early on that that wasn’t going to work—that I couldn’t get to the end that way, that the story was too complex to keep track of. So I basically went back to square one and wrote a chapter-by-chapter outline, back to front. I had to figure out how to get to that end, and going backwards from the resolution (arrest of the perp) seemed to make the most sense. The good thing about jumping right in was being able to establish the narrator’s/PI’s voice/point of view, as well as the setting (Marin County/San Francisco Bay Area) and, I hope, the “hook,” the reason he was hired to look into the possible murder.
Question: Early in the book the narrator tells his students that anyone who calls Jim Morrison a poet automatically fails the class. So Jim Morrison is not a poet?
Stephen Metzger: That was an early joke that managed to keep missing my editor’s eye/scalpel. That said, I’ve always thought the Jim Morrison-as-poet stuff was a bit over the top, especially when some other songwriters (Paul Simon) could legitimately be called poets.
Question: Way to work in a good Van Morrison reference. Did Van’s recent tirades (some musical) about public health restrictions affect how you view his overall career?
Stephen Metzger: I’m a huge Van Morrison fan, but his recent tirades about what he calls over-reaching government attempts to deal with COVID were hugely disappointing (though not all that surprising). On the other hand, I’ve spent a lot of time trying to figure out the artist-vs.-the-art thing, never satisfyingly. Do you refuse to appreciate a piece of art because of the artist’s politics or social/personal views? Wagner? D. H. Lawrence? Hemingway? I dunno. Bottom line: I still love Van’s music.
The case fits Mike McMahon like a thumping bass and driving drums synced up in the pocket.
McMahon is a private investigator but relies on extra cash from teaching a course in history of rock ‘n roll at Marin Community College.
The case involves the legendary Johnny Sands Band. Johnny Sands’ plane went down in 1976 after a concert in Albuquerque. Johnny was the only band member on board. The reasons the plane rammed into the Sandia Mountains were never determined.
Decades later, the band’s drummer dies in a suspicious car crash. Jim Rooney’s convertible Mustang sails off Hwy. 1 into the rocks along coastal California just north of San Francisco. Jim’s widow comes to McMahon thinking the crash was no accident. Coincidentally, Rooney had been on his way to mail off a copy of an as-yet-unpublished memoir that might have contained some dicey secrets about the old days in the band.
McMahon is a likable narrator, not only for his love of music. He played guitar in college bands, tried to find his big break in the San Francisco Bay Area and, after earning a master’s degree in American history at U.C. Berkeley, shunned further studies. “I was terrified that I’d have to buy a Volvo station wagon and a pair of Crocs. Thankfully, I took a handful of criminal justice courses, which made it much easier to get my P.I. license.” McMahon’s got a 150-pound Newfoundland retriever named Luther and he drives a 1963 “bathtub” Porsche, but he’s just clueless enough to not understand when his girlfriend dubs the car “Portia.”
So McMahon starts digging in, poking around in Albuquerque, Los Angeles, and northern Napa Valley. Also, of course, to the internet to dig up band lore and good leads. Police contacts help. There are mystery visitors to a long-term care facility where Johnny Sands’ brother Kevin is being treated for schizophrenia. There are missing documents, indications of accounting shenanigans with band royalties, and perhaps some clues embedded in a few of Johnny Sands’ best songs. There are facades and family secrets to uncover. The story has a bouncy, light feel—like a pop song with solid hooks and clever wordplay. McMahon thinks music or listens to music throughout Between Rock and Hard Places so you may find yourself building playlists as the mystery unspools. It’s a good thing.
McMahon—and it’s a useful talent when it comes to solving the mystery—is a believer in roots. He tells us this on page one. The students who sign up for his course, he says, “think they’re going to get to listen to Led Zeppelin and watch YouTube clips for homework, and then drop the second week when I assign Rimbaud, Ginsberg, and Frederick Douglass, and tell them that we’ll be studying Brown vs. Board of Education and that anyone who calls Jim Morrison a poet automatically fails. Not that I don’t take advantage of the miracle of YouTube.”
So it’s no huge surprise that one of the final insights to the Johnny Sands airplane crash—and the drummer’s untimely demise—come from McMahon humming a tune and paying close attention to the lyrics. McMahon is a rock star detective in every sense of the word.
Buy Between Rock and Hard Places here.