A novel by Ellis Peters. A detective story written in 1967, is interesting on several fronts. It has interesting characters, setting, and plot it's own right, but what is especially interesting is how these elements are used to say things about folk music itself, as well as the people who play it and the places it's played.
The setting of the novel is a neo-gothic manor called Follymead, which has been converted to a music school. In the midst of running around and trying to figure out who did what to whom; the characters also manage to fall in love with the place, and the reader is invited to as well. It's described as almost a parody of itself, with the gothic elements of its architecture combined to point out how silly, yet endearing, these elements are. "So outrageous as to be almost beautiful, so phony that it had its own kind of genuiness". The grounds are also pretty but ironic, and aptly described. All in all it seems a very good place to have a music school or a murder mystery.
The characters are also enjoyable, and most will probably consider them the strength of the novel. It's populated with amusing folk musicians and the people that surround them. There's: the warden of Follymead, Edward Arundale, who loves his school almost as much as he loves his wife; his lovestruck niece, Felicity Cope; the witty professor Roderick Penrose; the personable but shallow disc jockey, Dickie Meurice; the stormy yet talented musician Lucien "Lucifer" Galt and the talented yet stormy Liri Palmer. Not to mention the earnest Theodosia Barber (Tossa to her friends) and her boyfriend, Dominic Felse (son of Inspector George Felse, making this an Inspector Felse Mystery). They all have insightful conversations and interactions that both expose the reader the world of folk music, and give them the information needed to follow the murder plot.
What I like most about the novel, however, is the use of music to encode information (or at least descriptions of the use of music to encode information). For example, towards the beginning Liri Palmer is asked to play an impromptu piece. So she changes the words of a popular folk song Black is the Colour of my True Love's Hair into:
'Black, black, black is the colour of my true-love's heart!
His tongue is like a poisoned dart,
The coldest eyes and the lewdest hands...
I hate the ground whereon he stands.'
I hate my love, yet well he knows
I love the ground whereon he goes,
And if my love no more I see,
No one shall have his company!
Black, black, black, is the colour of my true-love's heart...
This obviously conveys a very different message then the original
, but whether it is simple angst or a specific threat can really only be deciphered by the one the song is intended for. As the book implies, this sort of impromptu modification is one of the strengths of a folk music, whose many traditional pieces are often modified by the artist to suit the audience.