The dying Scott Joplin gets tangled up in murder and writes his final masterpiece.
In the hot summer of 1916, Joplin meets with Irving Berlin—not just a composer but a successful music publisher—hoping to interest him in his new work, a musical drama in two acts called If. It’s a sign of Joplin’s desperation that he approaches Waterson, Berlin, and Snyder Music Publishers even though he believes he was cheated by them years ago over another matter. But the composer knows he doesn’t have long to live, and he’s obsessed with leaving some money to his wife Lottie. Unfortunately, even though Joplin’s protégé Martin Niederhoffer, who works for the publisher, is on hand to help him, the meeting ends badly, with the irrational Joplin making accusations and storming off. The composer’s fortunes go from bad to worse when Martin discovers him standing over the body of Martin’s co-worker Sid Altman, a straight razor in his hand. Although Joplin’s explanation is questionable, Martin believes in his innocence, and his friends team up to help. Nell Stanley hides him from the police while Martin hires a colorful thug named Footsie Vinny to lean on the publishers on Joplin’s behalf, guaranteeing further mayhem.
Impressively researched, with a substantial bibliography, Karp’s second Joplin mystery (The Ragtime Kid, 2006) paints a full-bodied portrait of Harlem back in the day. Though the plot rambles, it takes you places you’ll be glad you visited.