Carlotta Carlyle, the main character of this and three other novels, is in many ways similar to other female detectives that have become popular recently. The formula, if it is one, works. Carlyle, a six-foot, one-inch redhead, is an engaging character, and Barnes puts her to work on an intricate, fascinating case.
Carlyle drives a cab when there isn’t enough detective work to pay the bills. STEEL GUITAR begins with her picking up Dee Wilson, an old college friend, as a fare. Wilson has made it big in the music industry, so Carlyle recognizes her right away. It is not until the pair become involved in a scuffle with a group of derelicts that Wilson recognizes Carlyle.
Wilson convinces Carlyle to help her find an old mutual friend. Carlyle discovers why—the old friend appears to be suing Wilson over some songs. The mystery becomes deeper when Wilson’s bass player is found dead, with Wilson framed for the murder. Carlyle’ search for answers leads her to work with her former husband, who ran away with Wilson years ago. She is forced to confront her feelings about Wilson and her husband, as well as recalling the suicide of yet another friend.
If this sounds like more tragedy than one set of characters could plausibly encounter, welcome to the world of the blues. STEEL GUITAR is special because of its setting in the music world. Barnes clearly has a fascination with and knowledge of music, the blues in particular. Her musician and promoter characters all ring true, and the stories surrounding them are all natural. The resolution of the several mysteries is believable but unexpected.