The story of Robert Johnson stands as one of the founding myths not just of the blues, but of the rock genre it eventually, if carelessly, spawned. While I can't think of any other musicians murdered, as Johnson supposedly was, by drinking strychnine-laced whisky (courtesy of a jealous husband), there are plenty who have claimed to have sold their soul to the Devil in exchange for their musical chops. In fact, it is the most intriguing detail of that "crossroads" myth that Charles Shaar Murray picks up on in his debut novel: the manner in which the Devil transmits his wicked fretboard skills.
In the story, Johnson and the Devil meet at a crossroads at midnight. Johnson passes the Devil his guitar, the Devil retunes it, and passes it back – proving that the Devil doesn't just have the best tunes; he has the best tuning.
In The Hellhound Sample, that guitar, a battered old Stella, retains its occult power – and its curse – even out of Johnson's possession. After the guitarist's death it is bought by 16-year-old James Moon, who will become one of that generation of bluesmen that came after Johnson, joining those such as Sonny Boy Williamson and Muddy Waters who inspired the Stones and the Yardbirds, fell out of fashion in the 1970s and, some of them, lived to kick back in the music industry's end-of-the-century heritage departure lounge.
Much of that history is covered in flashback, but the main plot of the novel takes place in California in 2004. Moon, now aged 82 and stricken with liver cancer, is determined to bring his fractured family together to make one last record. This means his estranged daughter Venetia, an Aretha-like "Princess of Soul", and Venetia's son Calvin, a hip-hop mogul, as well as Mick Hudson, the British rock guitarist Moon saw as his protégé. That Mick is also Calvin's unacknowledged father might elicit a groan from the reader, but the too-good-to-be-true family tree is built like that for a reason. Murray, who has written biographies of Jimi Hendrix and John Lee Hooker, is more interested in the music than the characters, specifically in how the blues gene mutated as it passed down through its offspring.
Calvin, listening to a Robert Johnson CD, reckons it's "some hardass gangsta shit... If he found him a young rapper writin' rhymes like that, he'd sign the muthafucka right there on the spot, rename him Robbery, have himself a hit by next Tuesday."
Murray's attempts at music industry lingo sometimes grate (is it possible to make an old-school British rock manager sound anything other than ludicrous?). But Moon and Hudson are genially drawn sketches, especially when they have a guitar in their hands. Rock novels often shy away from the music, but this one comes alive every time someone strums a chord or opens their mouth to sing.
In the studio, leaning into the mic, Blue "seemed to be floating the words out on the shallowest of breaths. It was blues singing at its most intimate, when even the singer sounds like he's not quite sure whether he's talking to himself or to someone else." Fans of the music will enjoy Murray's spirited homage.