Crime Corner: Accordion Crimes and other grisly musical tales

From a squeeze box to Death Metal

Photo: Colourbox
Many Norwegian Americans learn to play the accordion as children and are still playing today.

Brought to you by Jerry Holt

This special music issue of The Norwegian American allows this reviewer to contemplate the several ways that music has figured in to books and films that revolve around crimes.

Crime Corner: Accordion Crimes

In her novel Accordion Crimes, Annie Proulx tells the stories of a cast of immigrants in the United States, all linked by a simple green accordion.

The epitome of such narratives is likely Annie Proulx’s Accordion Crimes from 1996, but there are plenty more—in fact, the truth is that in novels and films crime and music can be pretty chummy companions. Phantom of the Opera, The Red Shoes, and concept albums like the Eagles’ Desperado, and even The Who’s Tommy turn on criminality in its various forms—and, of course, it was John Lennon himself who, in an eerie act of personal premonition, warned us that “Happiness is a Warm Gun.” But let’s start with a novel.

The aforementioned Accordion Crimes is a free-flowing story that follows the progress of a battered green accordion through many years and several owners. Born of dubious parentage and finally crushed under the wheels of a semi in Florida, that poor accordion has one helluva ride.

Although not billed as a crime novel, Proulx’s book is filled with crime and of a rather grisly variety at that. The author is no stranger to the genre: her breakthrough novel The Shipping News (1993) is a sometimes funny but darkly twisted tale of suicide, child abuse, and other dark doings. On her softer side, she wrote the short story Brokeback Mountain about two cowboys who find themselves deeply attracted to each other, which Larry McMurtry adapted into a screenplay for the hit film.

All kinds of terrible things figure into the journey of the green accordion, some of them funny, some tragic, but most tragicomic. The cast of characters—pretty bizarre ones—grows as the accordion passes from hand to hand, and here, Norway gets into the picture: one of the possessors, pawnshop owner Ivar Gasmann, has immigrated to Montana from Norway, looking for a new life after being the victim of Nils, his crazed violent father:

“Back at the barn, he beat Ivar with his fists, lashed him was a length of rusty cable that laid the boy’s back open on the first blow and kept up until a vertebra jutted white from the bloody pulp. The shrieks and cries stopped as Ivar fell unconscious, but Nils beat on, shouting incoherently about laziness and ruin, lies and perfidy, criminal instincts….”

This savage act causes Ivar’s mother to deal Nils what she believes is a deathblow with a 5-foot crowbar, but Nils survives to kill her and then meets his death by jumping off a silo.

What a cheerer-upper of a story! But Ivar, like the book’s other characters, is destined not to hold on to the accordion, which does not stay in Ivar’s pawnshop. In truth, the little instrument seems to bring human misery wherever it goes, and since it goes plenty of places, so does the misery.

There is a running commentary here about migratory people and their search for something they can call home, and the accordion and the music it makes (we learn a lot about that) essentially make up a soundtrack in print. The book is still a long and immersing read.

A similar effort is the basis for the 1998 film The Red Violin, although this time the instrument that is handed down and passed about is not something so populist as an accordion: it’s a Stradivarius—the real thing—that follows a more royal road than the accordion in Proulx’s book follows, but nonetheless makes its way through multiple owners and five countries. The tale spans five countries and also contains its fair quotient of violent behavior: at one point the violin, which actually contains human blood in its varnish, itself gets shot. Honest.

That’s s a shame because the violin—evidently based on a real one—has been so intricately, flawlessly made. As one admirer says: “What do you do when the thing you most wanted, so perfect, just comes?”

The film was directed by French-Canadian François Girard, no stranger to music, since he has directed Stravinsky for the stage and a documentary about Glenn Gould. The Red Violin won an Oscar for Best Musical Score. If you’ve never seen it, it’s well worth a look, not least because its cast boasts the ever-watchable Samuel L. Jackson.

Crime Corner

Norwegian Death Metal music figures in Jake Brennan’s novel Disgraceland: Musicians Getting Away with Murder and Behaving Very Badly.

Disgraceland (2016) proudly displays the subtitle “Musicians Getting Away with Murder and Behaving Very Badly.” Author Jake Brennan, a musician, plows fairly familiar ground: the rock-star antics of Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, and, of course, Axl Rose all get hashed again, as well as separate chapters on “Skinny Elvis” and “Fat Elvis.”

Brennan’s fresh material, however, returns us to Norway and to the Death Metal scene. It turns out that this ear-splitting Satan-worshipping subgenre claims the “happiest country in the world,” as Norway is often billed, as its home. Since I have lived in and come to deeply love Norway, some of Brennan’s descriptions are annoying to me:

“Norway, a small constitutional monarchy, went through a brief Viking phase during its adolescence, flirted with fascism in its young adulthood, and eventually settled lazily into a type of democratic socialism during its middle age.”

Brennan continues this line of damning with faint praise. After asserting that Norway’s “greatest cultural export is fried fish” and glibly noting that Norway is “Europe’s answer to an American flyover state,” he goes ahead to state that the reason Death Metal became popular quickly in Norway is because: “Historically, there’s not a lot to get pissed off about, because there’s not a lot that goes on in Norway.”

Help. Police. Murder. Here come the cultist bands to give us something to get pissed off about. According to Brennan, they kill each other and eat their brains. More frightening to the rest of us, they burn churches. Brennan concentrates on a trio of Death Metallers who did all of that, and more and then claims that “Norwegian Black Metal is bigger than ever.” Thanks. I’ll pass.

This article originally appeared in the April 2024 issue of The Norwegian American.

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Jerry Holt

Jerry Holt is a novelist, playwright, teacher, and public speaker. He is professor emeritus of English at Purdue University Northwest and a recipient of Purdue's 2015 Dreamer Award, recognized for work as that has "embodied Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s vision of service to others.” Holt has written four major plays, one novel, and nine short plays. His acclaimed novel, The Killing of Strangers, focuses on several mysteries surrounding the Kent State University shootings on May 4, 1970.