Top positive review
In Fitzhugh's hands crime doesn't pay - but its lots of fun!
on May 1, 2004
In his previous novels mystery author Bill Fitzhugh has used various industries as backdrops for his stories, including pest control, biotechnology, organ transplantation (both human-to-human and animal-to-human), country music, and advertising. In RADIO ACTIVITY, his latest effort, Fitzhugh sets his sites on the radio industry.
Rock and roll deejay Rick Shannon has seen better days. Media giant Clean Signal Corporation (a jab at real-life media monster Clear Channel) has gobbled up the radio station that had provided him with gainful if less than glamorous and far less than artistically satisfying employment. His vast and precious record collection turns out to be worth far less where he is, in Bismarck, North Dakota, than it would be elsewhere, which is exactly where Rick would like to be. So when he is offered the seven-to-midnight shift on classic rock station WAOR in McRae, Mississippi, he packs his stuff into his pick-up and heads for yet another radio gig, his fifteenth in twenty years.
What Rick finds in McRae is ultra-smarmy WAOR station manager Clay Stubblefield. Clay informs Rick on his arrival that he has already been promoted to program director, the position having been vacated thanks to the disappearance of notorious cokehead Jack Carter. Rick accepts the news with something less than full enthusiasm. But a man without a paycheck is easily swayed.
At Clay's invitation Rick moves into Carter's abandoned mobile home. After settling in Rick finds a reel-to-reel tape, apparently hidden by Carter, of a telephone conversation between Stubblefield and an unidentified man. The blackmail-worthy chit-chat on the tape, coupled with Carter's sudden absence, leads Rick to suspect that Carter may have been using the tape in an ill-fated plan to siphon cash from the unctuous Stubblefield. Rick's growing curiosity about Carter's fate and the truth behind the tape proves as powerful a lure as the abundant blue eye shadow preferred by Traci, WAOR's deliciously trashy receptionist.
The story that ensues deftly combines all the necessary ingredients of a first-rate murder mystery with a remarkably detailed and fascinating dissertation on the definition and nature of classic rock, the current state of the radio business, and the homogenization of America as big media's search for the all-important mass audience dilutes what's left of local and regional color to the muddy charcoal gray of the asphalt parking lots that are rapidly becoming the dominant feature of the American landscape.
Fitzhugh's reputation for memorably off-center characters and crisp, comical dialogue is fully in evidence here. But having come of age in the era when AM top 40 began to give way to FM album-oriented rock (it was called underground or progressive music back then), I was particularly enthralled by the remarkable detail in which the music of the era was discussed. Fitzhugh, through protagonist Rick Shannon, mentions bands and songs that I haven't heard since I was a teenager, and the effect was an odd mix of nostalgia for those times and anger at what bean-counters and market research types have done to rock and roll. A couple of recent newspaper stories about the wildfire success of satellite and Internet radio coincided with my reading of RADIO ACTIVITY, and the thought of the pending demise of whatever rock and roll radio has become added an extra dimension to my enjoyment as I rooted for Rick Shannon to solve the mystery of Jack Carter's fate and make a success of the truly classic rock format he has devised for WAOR.
RADIO ACTIVITY offers plenty to satisfy mystery fans and music fans alike. The research into the history of the music of the late sixties and early seventies rivals that of the technical research that goes into Tom Clancy novels. But the information is blended seamlessly into the story, or more to the point, into Rick Shannon, which makes his character all the more interesting. And Rick is but one of a menagerie that includes good ole boys, cranky roadhouse waitresses, bent cops, assorted local ne'er do wells, and some eccentric good guys for balance. In Fitzhugh's hands crime doesn't pay, but it rocks, and it's a hell of a lot of fun.
--- Reviewed by Bob Rhubart