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Sunday 22 May 2005

We're in mood for a mystery and Piano Man holds the key

WHAT is it about pianos and disturbed people? The story so far: On Thursday, April 7, police in the Kentish coastal town of Sheerness picked up a wet and distressed blond, youngish man. Since he didn't speak, they delivered him to the social services, who discovered that the labels on all his clothes had been removed, as had the identifying marks on his shoes. 

Offered pen and paper, in the hope that he would produce some information, this anxious mute drew an accurate picture of a grand piano. Presented with a real piano, he became completely relaxed and played fluently for hours. 

"Nobody was skilled enough to recognise the music, they just knew it was classical music and he played very well," said the local mental health manager. More recent reports mention Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake and John Lennon. 

Piano Man, as he has inevitably been dubbed by the hacks, still draws pictures of pianos but also writes music. I write crime novels as well as having the day job of historian, so this story has been annoying me for weeks. Why didn't Kent social services send out for a proper musician to listen to the chap and tell us: a) how good a pianist he is; b) what he's playing; c) is the music he's writing down his own or someone else's; d) if it's any good? 

After all, that musician could show him sheet music and find out if he's basically classical, jazz or pop - and then maybe play along with him and win his trust. 

Kent chose instead to move him to accommodation with no piano, though allegedly he's now been given an electronic keyboard by a concerned tabloid. My inner detective also dredges up the terrible but compelling novels of Freeman Wills Croft, whose fantastically dull Inspector French once brought a murderer to justice by doggedly following a clue of one thread. (Sample purple passage: "He began to study the trains. The first northwards was the 4pm dining express from King's Cross to Newcastle. It left Doncaster at 7.56 and reached Selby at 8.21. Would Archer travel by it? And if he did, what would be his next move?") Well, Inspector French would have had blond bloke's clothes and shoes analysed and, if necessary (for French these days would have been a geek), would have put the salient details on the internet, and by now we'd know that his underpants were a slightly damaged consignment, sold only in Bratislava. 

What's more - I'm getting more agitated by the moment - after six weeks, we still have to put up with being told that his hair may be dyed. Are the social workers blind? Has he dark roots or has he not? Inspector French would have tracked down the variety of hair dye by now. But I'm a boring pedestrian person who likes mysteries to be solved and hates conspiracy theories. I'd rather be found half-drowned and dyed blonde on a Kentish beach than have to read The Da Vinci Code

But I have to accept that I'm peculiar. Apparently, much of the world rejoices in mystery for mystery's sake, which is why instead of calling for Inspector French to give us some sensible information (Dammit, how tall is tall? What size are his feet?), they're merrily ringing the Piano Man helpline to report that their next-door neighbour hasn't been seen since March, and once played the piano in the local pub. 

Photographs have been circulating worldwide, orchestras have been checking for mysterious absences, and so far the fellow's been wrongly identified as a Swedish concert pianist, a French street musician and a visitor to an Italian musical instrument fair. Much of the fascination seems to be with the piano. The lazy oft-repeated comparison is with David Helfgott, the Australian pianist whose breakdown and later recovery inspired the film Shine. Helfgott always knew who he was and he wasn't mute, so I don't myself spot the relevance. But if you want to hold your own over a pretentious dinner table, here are a few more irrelevant cultural references. 

There was The Piano - a dreary movie about a piano-playing mute who makes an unfortunate marriage in New Zealand - that nearly everyone loved but I hated. There's Truffaut's Shoot the Pianist, in which a famous concert pianist reacts to a tragedy by disappearing and becoming a pub-pianist. 

And, since autism has become fashionable, and people are claiming blond bloke is an idiot savant, you can throw in references to Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man. Or, if you want to show that you're up there with the conspiracy theorists, mention K-Pax, in which Kevin Spacey was either an alien or mentally deranged. I don't think he played the piano, but who cares?

Ruth Dudley Edwards


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