One of popular music’s most prolific and creative composers, Elvis Costello has written songs in every conceivable genre: pop, reggae, rock, country, funk, soul and jazz, but also for full orchestras and string quartets. What you may not have noticed is that a surprising number of these songs are crime stories—not mere nods toward unsavory events featuring questionable characters, but complete tales of murder and violence told in verse.
Costello’s song titles alone confirm one of his preferred themes: “Accidents will Happen,” “American Gangster Time,” “Bullets for the Newborn King,” “Coal-Train Robberies,” “The Final Mrs. Curtain,” “Hetty O’Hara Confidential,” “Kinder Murder,” “My Thief,” “Shabby Doll,” “Shot with His Own Gun,” “That’s How You Got Killed Before” and “Watching the Detectives,” among them. His album titles include “Blood & Chocolate,” “Brutal Youth,” “National Ransom” and “When I Was Cruel.” You can just imagine the so-called pulp mysteries of the 1920s, ‘30s and ‘40s bearing identical titles accompanied by lurid, evocative cover art.
In “Brutal & Strange,” contemporary masters of crime fiction dig into Costello’s catalogue for inspiration. The marriage of Costello’s themes and these award-winning authors’ creativity will seem an inevitable match when you experience the results. Whether it’s Meg Gardiner and “Complicated Shadows,” Catriona McPherson and “Tramp the Dirt Down,” Alex Segura and “I Want You” Mark Billingham and “Our Little Angel” or many other virtuoso interpretations, the stories match the composer’s high standards and suggest there’s even more stirring beneath the surface of his songs.
In his “Everyday I Write the Book”—explored here by Gar Anthony Hayward—Costello portrays an author as sinister, controlling and vengeful. That’s not to say the authors who contributed to “Brutal & Strange” are anything of the kind. But you will find their questionable characters engaged in unsavory events. One imagines Costello himself would approve.