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It would seem as though many of the discoveries in my long life have been through chance, serendipitous to use a posher description. We have arrived at the end of the yearly blues extravaganza here on the island when Hornby is chock-a-block with blues enthusiasts all attempting to either teach or learn the archaic music form of the American Negro. I’ve accidentally come upon a novel by Lee Child titled “Killing Floor”. It seems that Mister Child is a famous author of rip-roaring thrillers and the one I’ve just finished his first attempt [1997] in the genre. In the ensuing 22 years he’s written 23 more. Normally my choice, as my Books Read list shows, are John Banville, Iain Banks, Kate Atkinson, Martin Amos, Edward St. Aubyn, David Mitchell, Michael Chabon, even Linden MacIntyre, but not usually a book where almost the entire cast is murdered over its 407 pages.

I have a general rule of 50 pages, if I arrive at this number then I continue, believing I have found a story of consequence. “Killing Floor” seemed an unlikely candidate. To my surprise on page 18 I am drawn into the story with the introduction of an unlikely candidate:

“You picked this place out”, Finley said. Don’t give me that shit. How could you pick this place out? It’s just a name. It’s just a dot on the map. You must of had a reason.”

I nodded. “I thought I’d come and look for Blind Blake,” I said.

“Who the hell is Blind Blake?”, he said

I watched him evaluating scenarios like a chess computer evaluates moves. Was Blind Blake my enemy, my accomplice, conspirator, mentor, creditor, debtor, my next victim?

“Blind Blake was a guitar player”, I said, “died sixty years ago, maybe murdered. My brother bought a record, sleeve note said it happened in Margrave. He wrote me about it. Said he was through here a couple of times in the spring, some kind of business. I thought I’d come down and check it out.”

A few details: The character’s name is Jack Reacher, Margrave is a small town in Georgia, and it’s not so peculiar that the police captain [Finley] would be unaware of Blind Blake. The story is movie-ready formula writing, a page turner in the vernacular of the idiom, but contains numerous references to blues singers. Jack Reacher being a fan, his mention of Blind Blake, of whom I have four recordings, led me to Google; my intention being to download whatever I could find as musical inspiration while I continued with the novel. As is often the case there were comments, the first one I opened read – “Jack Reacher sent me here.”

Jack Reacher is held in a jail cell on suspicion of murder. To keep his mind occupied he silently sings in his head every version of “Ramblin on My Mind” he knows. Throughout the book he claims he doesn’t need a stereo because he has the best stereo in the world – his mind. He tells how John Lee Hooker had bottle caps attached to the soles of his shoes so he could tap out the rhythm while he played, references an old Canned Heat song and Albert King’s “Born Under a Bad Sign” that he hears on a car radio, “Smokestack Lightnin’” by Howlin’ Wolf – the book’s title being another of Wolf’s legendary songs, and two versions of “Further On Up The Road” by Bobby Blue Bland and Wild Child Butler. So you can see why I continued reading this book to the very end.

Blind Blake makes numerous appearances through the saga, and on page 383 makes his final appearance. As with all small southern American towns there is of course the elderly black barber, in this case two brothers. Their ninety year-old sister knew Blind Blake “real” well.

She hummed a couple of bars of something under her breath. Her voice was about a fifth lower pitched than it ought to have been… But she was singing with a low, breathy contralto. I thought back with her and put the two of them together in a Georgia meadow. The wildflower blossom, the buzz of lazy noontime insects, the two of them, backs against a tree, singing and playing for the joy of it. Belting out the wry defiant songs that Blake had made up and that I loved so much.

Play List
Howlin’ Wolf – Killing Floor
Blind Blake – All The Best – Vintage Jukebox
Robert Johnson – Ramblin’ On My Mind
John Lee Hooker – Boogie Chillen
Albert King – Born Under A Bad Sign
Howlin’ Wolf – Smokestack Lightnin’
Bobby “Blue” Bland – Farther up the Road
George “Wild Child” Butler

Howlin’ Wolf photograph Bill Smith [A double click makes it full size]
Blind Blake photographer unknown [A double click makes it full size]

Killing Floor and other Jack Reacher books are available through your local library.