A swing band partakes of the brighter, frothier, more popular energies of jazz, leaving other players in that musical tradition to explore sounds and stylings that are darker, hotter, more intense. Just so does Holmes, for long stretches of this well-orchestrated historical thriller, play at the lighter, more romantic end of the mystery-genre register. For better than half of the novel’s 358 pages, love receives at least as much attention as does death. On page 42, hero and narrator Ray Sherwood refers obliquely to the “killer” of a woman whom he has just seen fall to her death from the Tower of the Sun at the 1939–1940 Golden Gate International Exposition, in San Francisco Bay. Not until page 215 does he again mention that woman, or the possibility that she did not die of suicide. In between, Sherwood describes his abiding anguish over the accidental death years earlier of his beloved young daughter; tells of his work as a saxophonist in the Jack Donovan touring swing band, currently playing at the posh Claremont Hotel, in Berkeley; and recounts his burgeoning attraction to Gail Prentice, a fetching University of California music student who has charmed him into arranging a composition of hers.
In note-perfect prose, Sherwood’s narrative evokes a slice of golden California life at a moment right before the looming war would change everything—a lost world of sweet, sly songs crooned by men in white dinner jackets. And although it’s rather late in coming, a smartly plotted mystery does emerge, complete with hints of international intrigue and puckishly conceived clues (some of them musical) that would do Alfred Hitchcock proud. Even the story of Sherwood’s love life features a nice twist at the end, a final coda that offers both the comfort of resolution and the frisson of surprise.