The Soul Hit, by Charlie Haas & Tim Hunter
No month stated, 1977 Harper & Row
I learned about this obscure novel thanks to the Rolling Stone Cover To Cover CD-ROM. I was doing a search on “rock novels” (which is how I discovered Death Rock several years ago) and came upon a somewhat-positive review of the book. The review also mentioned that co-writer Charlie Haas had been responsible for the “hip” liner notes to be found in Warner Bros records at the time. However looking up The Soul Hit online it would appear the novel didn’t resonate much, as info is scant and there doesn’t even appear to have been a paperback edition – which is exactly what the book needed, as it’s already around the length of an average PBO of the day.
So it only came out in hardcover, the back cover of which informs us that co-writers Hunter and Haas were buddies in college, both now live in Los Angeles, and both are in some degree involved with the entertainment industry. They make a fine writing team; it’s hard to detect two people wrote the book, so in that regard it reminded me of The Headhunters. I did notice that some chapters would open with elaborate scene-setting, usually detailing one-off or supporting characters, with the main plot being concerned with the investigation of a retired FBI agent into a music biz killing, so perhaps that was the line of delineation. At any rate the writing here is very good – very much in-line with your typical private eye yarn, but gussied up with a bit of a “literary” vibe at times. And definitely aware of the inner machinations of the record and radio business.
The novel takes place in 1976 and opens in an AM radio station in San Luis Obispo, CA; the authors are already aware of how radio has changed so drastically, with the young jock, Barry Marsh, unable to voice too much “personality” and just sticking to the hits. This is a fun bit and comes off like the fictional equivalent of FM or Radio Waves, only it’s about the much less interesting (to me at least) world of AM instead of FM. (There will be another character who is an FM deejay later in the book, but the authors don’t bring the environment to life as much as they do here.) Barry spins some singles and then, his overnight shift over, goes to the local Y to let off some steam on the squash court. Then a sniper blows his head off.
This introduces us to the hero of the tale: Ben Marsh, Barry’s “middle-aged” uncle, a retired FBI agent. He now lives in Oregon, tending to the peach trees on his estate. The authors bring this stuff to life with info on how to cultivate peach trees and whatnot, letting you know they’ve done their research. Marsh gets a call from another nephew – Barry’s brother – and flies to California for the funeral. The local cops haven’t made any headway, so Marsh does his own investigation. This leads to a nice bit where Barry’s girlfriend, a hippie chick who works at the college bookstore, lets Marsh into Barry’s apartment and they look around – and find all five hundred of his records smashed on the floor. This part even upset me…I mean the poor vinyl! The girl goes into the bathroom and Marsh hears some grating metal; Barry had a stash of coke hidden in the shower, payola from a PR guy from Colony Records.
This stuff brings to mind Triple Platinum, and again the authors – likely Haas – show familiarity with how hit records don’t just happen, how it all comes down to the hustle. Also Marsh is pretty hip for an FBI guy, giving the girl back the coke after getting more info from her on where it came from. Eventually he ends up in Los Angeles, looking into the Colony PR guy, Jerry Vilella. Jerry met with Barry Marsh the day before Barry was murdered, so Marsh tries to figure out if there’s a connection. And there sure seems to be; Marsh finds the door to Vilella’s home unlocked…and Vilella himself lying on his bed, his head blown off. Marsh hears someone at the door and hides in the closet, watching as a hotstuff blonde comes in and, oblivious to the corpse under the sheets in the bed, starts to disrobe, though the authors aren’t ones to get into sleazy details.
Her name is Carrie Voy, and she is the FM deejay mentioned above; Marsh continues to hide as she discovers Lenny’s corpse, freaks, and runs from the house. He tracks her down after the funeral and she will ultimately become his assistant in the investigation. Carrie is not only a memorable character with sparkling dialog – the authors in general deliver good, movie-esque dialog – but she also provides Marsh with another glimpse into the workings of the record business. I especially liked how she is halting and uncertain in her speech when meeting people, but cool calm and collected when on the radio. There also seemed to be a shout-out to famous WNEW-FM DJ Alison “The Nightbird” Steele here, with Carrie referring to herself on-air as “…the night light, Carrie Voy, flying on the air with the greatest of ease at ninety-three FM.”
An interesting thing about The Soul Hit is that Marsh is older than the majority of the other characters, thus he adds a layer of reflection to everything; he notices things that younger people surely wouldn’t, and his appreciation of Carrie is altogether old-fashioned. The veteran reader knows where this is going, but the authors do a great job of making the relationship develop gradually and naturally. It starts when Marsh follows Carrie home after the funeral, and sees a thug in a suit barge into her house and threaten her with a gun. Luckily Marsh has kept his own gun (a .38 revolver) and comes to her rescue. After which Carrie is so concerned that she wants Marsh to basically stay in her place, even though he’s a stranger himself.
Curiously this element though doesn’t go further; I kept waiting for the goons to show up again, but the authors pretty much forget about them until near the very end. Same goes for the cocaine Barry Marsh got as payola; Marsh follows this angle to the Colony Records office building, coincidentally running into a sexy “coca-skinned” stewardess who was apparently hired by Jerry Vilella to smuggle in cocaine. This subplot is built up a little and then abruptly dropped. Regardless Marsh’s visit to Colony Records is another well-delivered sequence, again bringing to mind Triple Platinum. He learns that Jerry was pushing a new single by Ovis Timbers, a sort of proto-Prince in that he’s a soul artist veering over into the pop charts: the “soul hit” of the title.
Carrie acts as Marsh’s sort-of informant, preparing him with insider info on the music world; Jerry’s co-worker at Colony invites Marsh to a party that night being thrown for Timbers, and Marsh invites the coke-smuggling stew. He’s met her simply by walking into Jerry’s office and snooping around, and coincidentally she just happens to come by at that very moment to arrange payment for the coke she’s brought in! That night at the party Marsh “samples” the merchandise, feeling his mind blown…even though Carrie told him to “act cool” and say the coke “must’ve been cut.” But this will be it for the coke-smuggling subplot, with the focus instead on the gang war brewing around Ovis Timbers. His gang has promised to donate all proceeds to charity, and a rival gang claims it’s all b.s., and a ruckus develops.
The vibe is very much of a private eye yarn; Marsh heads to the afterparty, and just as stews he’s with begin to disrobe (thanks to snorting some coke, apparently), he runs into one of the thugs who showed up at Carrie’s house. What makes this different than the average private eye yarn is that Marsh is a “shoot, then call the cops” sort of hero…which is exactly what he does after tangling with the thug. This introduces us to another memorable character, a police captain “older than Marsh” who has some very dry, acerbic humor. The two develop a somewhat-contentious working relationship, and Marsh is able to continue his own investigation, even keeping his gun.
Meanwhile he sleeps in Carrie’s living room, the authors doing a good job of bringing this whole relationship to life. Carrie does the night shift, same as the Night Bird, thus her “dinner” is other people’s “breakfast.” This entails some domestic scenes of Carrie preparing meals while Marsh sits and listens to her. Nothing is rushed here, with Marsh sleeping on her couch, waiting around while she’s home so she feels safe, and then going off to investigate when she’s at the station. The authors also don’t do much to dwell on the age gap, nor the fact that Carrie’s previous fling was murdered just a few days before. In fact Marsh gives her time, and even later chastises himself for “his thoughts of love-making” when he watches her in action at the FM station one night. Regardless, Carrie as expected begins to develop feelings for Marsh, especially after he begins coming home with his ass kicked.
This is another similarity to Mike Hammer or some other P.I. deal; Marsh gets taken through the wringer in the course of the book, captured a few times and beaten around unmerciful. At one point he’s captured by the rival gang and knocked around, then later some bikers get hold of him. This part is also cool because the authors show how records are made, the bikers running a bootleg operation. One thing I didn’t like though was that a lot of Marsh’s revelations and realizations were kept from the reader, with him doing stuff for seemingly no reason, only to explain why in the final pages. But ultimately everything is connected: the gang war, the bikers, the murders, and Ovis Timbers’s new single. While Timbers is more of a soul artist than a rock artist, the book still has the vibe of a rock novel, with lots of behind-the-scenes info and actual description of what the music sounds like, something that eludes most other “rock novelists.” This is especially pronounced in the description of Timbers’s hit single with its opening “fast bass run, low, crouching, insistent,” as well as in the concert Timbers gives in the novel’s climax.
While the action was cool and the music biz stuff very interesting, I found myself most interested in the Marsh-Carrie relationship. Again, the initial thing that brought them together (the thugs threatening Carrie) is kind of dropped, but still the whole bit with Marsh staying with her so she’d feel safe was nicely handled. And of course she eventually comes to Marsh in the living room one night, leading to the expected shenanigans, though the authors as mentioned don’t dwell on any sleaze. But we do at least get a little resolution with those thugs, who happen to be at Timbers’s concert in the climax, along with the bikers, members of both gangs, and everyone else who has taken a shot at Marsh: “This place is more like a free fire zone than a rock concert,” our hero tells Carrie.
I enjoyed The Soul Hit a lot, and can’t understand why it didn’t get more traction when it was released. The novel is graced with blurbs on the inner jacket: Ring Lardner, Joe Gores, and James D. Houston all provide glowing appraisals and opine that the novel is destined for success. But it doesn’t look as if it was to be. I’ve been too lazy to see if Haas and Hunter collaborated on anything else, but I certainly will one of these days, as The Soul Hit was an engaging read…and another one I never would’ve learned about if not for that Rolling Stone CD-ROM.