Sounds Like Something You Don’t Want to Hear

A friend, Henry Melrose, is a detective. You might imagine someone who looks like Rockford, Spenser or some sleazy git. Melrose looks like a businessman. That’s because that was what he was for the better part of his career.

He worked at a firm that manages wealthy people’s money. He did quite well at it. Met lots of people who are more than a bit better off than the rest of us. He wasn’t in their stratosphere. But because he was smart, articulate and managed to make them even more somewhat filthy lucre (not all investors are on the up and up, to understate things by a massive amount, and you don’t need a precis of the Pandora Papers to know that), they would be part of one of his foursomes at the Oakland Fields Country Club or meet him in the bar for a martini after an outing. He was able to chum along with the best of them.

But Melrose had a problem in the office which led to a divorce. He spent too much time there. He would spend hour after hour at his Bloomberg terminal. The Tokyo market opens at 10 pm Eastern and the London market opens at 3:00 am Eastern, and while he wasn’t in his office from dawn to dusk, rinse and repeat, he spent more time there than he did at home.

So his wife left him.

That set him back on his heels. And set him back financially, as well.

The shock was enough to make him quit his job, but the loss of a steady income and first-class benefits meant he needed to do something for a living. Having read far too much Raymond Chandler, he decided that he’d become a detective.

He’d always been taken with the opening of The Long Goodbye:

“Sit down, pal. Breathe quietly, keep your voice down, and remember that a Carne operative is to a cheap shamus like you what Toscanini is to an organ grinder’s monkey.”

He liked the bit about Toscanini.

While fictional representations of detectives typically are all about action, Melrose’s ability to sit in an office for hours on end staring at a screen—rarely getting up for food or bodily functions—serves him well as he sits in his Audi A5 for hours on end, staring at a door or a window.

The connections he made at the country club are his source of clientele. In that world—particularly as a result of the pandemic, which has kept people at home far more than they want to be with their significant others, which has led to something of a spate of people stepping out, and not in the Joe Jackson sense—there is more than a sufficient amount of work for Melrose.

Last week, as I had nothing to do for a few hours, I joined Melrose on a stakeout. Which simply means that I sat in a car with the man for several hours. While you might think that a guy who now spends hours on end sitting in a car would be somewhat slovenly, he looked like he did when he went to the office, which is well-kept and surprisingly fresh, especially for a guy in his early 70s. He was wearing a button-down shirt, paisley necktie and a double-breasted blue blazer that reminded me of something Thurston Howell III would wear.

It has always puzzled me why Melrose continues to do what he does, because he is at the point where he’s not in it for the money. But he told me that he saw a segment on “PBS Newshour” a couple of years ago when Pete Townshend said he doesn’t enjoy performing but it is an “easy” job that allows him to pay his bills and then some, and so that is why Melrose continues.

While the seats in the Audi are certainly comfortable, and the HVAC system is completely efficient and audibly imperceptible, a couple of hours was more than enough for me sitting there going nowhere.

Melrose, his ongoing commentary about trends and developments germane to the supply chain problem that was leading Costco to start limiting purchases of toilet paper once again and was leading him to make more money (he had connected to the WiFi in the office building we were outside of waiting for the husband of his client to leave and shoved his Dell in my face where there was a black screen with small numbers and squiggly lines: “That’s how you make money!”) notwithstanding, perceived that I was getting a bit antsy from doing nothing but listen to him.

He took his iPhone 13 Pro Max from the top of the instrument panel and said, “This will interest you.”

A few jabs of the screen later and I heard notes coming from the Bang & Olufsen 3D Sound System that were vaguely familiar and then the vocals began—

I used to live in New York City
Everything there was dark and dirty
Outside my window was a steeple
With a clock that always said 12:30

–with Melrose singing along. And to put it kindly, Melrose can’t sing. I realized that it was a Mamas & Papas song, “Twelve Thirty,” from 1968, which was never a hit in the context of, say, “California Dreamin’” or “Monday, Monday,” which wasn’t as bizarre as Melrose belting out

Young girls are coming to the canyon
And in the mornings I can see them walkin’. . .

I’d known the guy for years and had no idea there was this side of him.

That rendition was followed by a trio of songs by Delbert McClinton (“Old Weakness,” B-Movie Boxcar Blues” and “Too Much Stuff”), with vocal accompaniment, such as it barely was, by Melrose.

And it was topped off by a couple of tunes by some Lithuanian folksinger whose name I didn’t catch (because I didn’t understand what Melrose said, as his boarding school accent gave way to something eastern European). “Listen to this part!” Melrose insisted, as he then segued into singing along with Matis or Nojus or whatever that guy’s name is.

The cavalcade of music came to an end when the mark left the building and climbed into a Lexus LS 600 with smoked windows.

“I got to go,” Melrose said, returning to his all-business self. “You can come along or get out here and catch an Uber home.”

Being shook by the unexpected performance, I opted to leave.

You never know what songs are important to people.

And sometimes you don’t want to.

* * *

Video: The Mamas & The Papas – “Twelve Thirty” (on The Ed Sullivan Show)

From The Papas & The Mamas (Dunhill, 1968).

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