Friday, February 17, 2017

Shades and Striations

My desire to broaden the reach of mystery/crime fiction as it relates (or doesn't) to race, class, and identity in America is plain. While this may have engendered eye rolls from more than a few folks prior to November 8, 2016, a subtle nod toward diversity can now be considered a radical act. Yet I'm not throwin' bombs. I'm tossin' books.

My first suggestion comes from the late, great Chester Himes, whose work, along with his amazing life, demands to be considered a national treasure on a scale beyond the Chandlers, Hammetts, and Ellroys. Described by the autobiographer James Sallis as "a novelist in whom autobiography and fiction are inextricably and often maddeningly intertwined," Chester Himes dared to write hardboiled fiction that, in his own words, "was (meant) to force white Americans to confront the horror and brutalisation of the black ghettos." Whereas historically, African American characters are used as foil and fodder in the genre, Chester Himes shows us that other America by centering his plots with blackness. I hear often that my work does the same, and to welcoming effect. I'm not the first. I'm standing upon the shoulders of this black giant.

If only to lead folks to all of his mighty works, I suggest the final book in what is known as the Harlem cycle, or Harlem Detective series: Blind Man with a Pistol.

New York is sweltering in the summer heat, and Harlem is close to the boiling point. To Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones, at times it seems as if the whole world has gone mad. Trying, as always, to keep some kind of peace—their legendary nickel-plated Colts very much in evidence—Coffin Ed and Grave Digger find themselves pursuing two completely different cases through a maze of knifings, beatings, and riots that threaten to tear Harlem apart.

I'd wager you'd go back and start at his For Love Of Emmabelle a.k.a. A Rage In Harlem and continue all the way through. In our genre, black America is often treated as underbelly or nether-region that is navigated by choice, or desire. In this work, Chester Himes gave us not an African America, but the actual America, not in another shade or hue, but in stark white light-level reality.

"Blink once, you're robbed," Coffin Ed advised the white man slumming in Harlem.
"Blink twice, you're dead," Grave Digger added dryly.

Though our nation is a cluster of cultures that only blur into a mélange when pureed by our mastication of consumer experience, the twin halves of the American identity is interminably black and white. Yet along the equator of daily life, through the miasma of this abject oversimplicity, we are able to journey through several distinct cultural realities. Worlds upon worlds exist alongside the influences of white supremacy and black resistance. We just have to, say, ponder who cooks our tacos and chow mein. We have to consider going deeper, beyond the weekend excursions and staycations and treat our car windows as the looking glass where we see other beings so similar and yet most unlike ourselves.

My frequently expressed dictum for writing in our genre is crime touches us all. It is the grand equalizer of the American experience. Henry Chang's Detective Yu series boldly reclaims Asian American crime themes from Earl Derr Biggers and rekindles the complexities of the Chinese people in America to stirring effect. I read Chinatown Beat and, though I identify as African American, I was at home in its protagonist Jack Yu's internal and external conflicts. There is deep American commonality in these books.

NYPD detective Jack Yu must investigate the rape of a grade-school girl on the fringes of Chinatown, where he grew up and has just been stationed. Meanwhile, would-be gangster Johnny Wong is carrying on with Mona, the gorgeous mistress of his employer, Uncle Four, head of the local branch of the Hip Ching tong and a powerful underworld figure in both New York and Hong Kong. As Yu digs deeper into his case, he finds evidence of a connection between the rapist and the local gangsters.

Henry Chang may not be from your neighborhood, but he understands his neighborhood, and 'hood recognize 'hood, y'all.


Most folks know I have a love for heroes. I prefer a good hardboiled mystery or thriller that puts a protagonist at odds with a con, conspiracy or overall oppressive force that wants to chew up the little guy and gal with impunity. Elliot Caprice, the protagonist of my novel, A Negro and an Ofay (May 2017, Down & Out Books), is, to his continual frustration, bound by a singular personal ethic: "It's wrong, and it happened in front of me. That makes it my business." We write what we know. I know heroes. Even anti-heroes are still heroes.

Though I don't reach for caper stories and criminal tales, in which the con is the thing, and the plan is to get away with it, they often fall in my lap, and I enjoy them all the same. Except I didn't enjoy Vern E. Smith's brilliant—and sole—crime novel, The Jones Men, nominated for the Edgar Award for Best First Novel by an American Author in 1975. I couldn't stand it, as it was the psychological equivalent to being locked in a room with all my friends and family members who came up on both sides of the American hypocrisy of narcotics: pushers and users. There's less mystery in the plot, though plenty can be found in the motivations and activities of the characters, and especially within the notion that any of them will succeed.

An all-out drug war explodes in 1970s Detroit when a young Vietnam veteran decides to rip off heroin kingpin Willis McDaniel. In the chaos, rival outfits, the Mafia, and even junkies themselves try to step in to fill the void while one lone assassin tries to hunt them all down—and one determined cop tries to stop it all.

Mississippi-born Vern Smith (1946) was a journalist covering Detroit for Newsweek during the siege of drugs and violence that claimed the city's identity from the prosperity of the automotive boon and its Motown soundtrack. In its pages, he draws a perfect picture of the collusion of all the players in the drug game. Though the reader may pick a side, the work is bereft of heroism, and it plays in the modern mind as a tragedy on the scale of Sysiphus. Though Smith would go on to continue a distinguished career as a journalist covering such seminal events as Hank Aaron's usurping of Babe Ruth's home run record and the Atlanta child murders that had the entire nation captivated in 1980, he never again wrote a novel. The Jones Men is a hole-in-one in the final round of the US Open. It's the goddamned Hope Diamond of crime fiction novels. Yet Vern E. Smith, though he serves America still, has no Wikipedia entry for himself or his novel. Check out Eric Beetner's excellent article on the book at The Criminal Element and track down a copy. If you find it at a flea market or Goodwill, it's the crime fiction equivalent of a rare Rembrandt on markdown. Just don't expect to feel cozy while reading it.


I've yet to be asked to cease asserting my themes and ideas, so I've resolved to keep going and make certain I offer up jewels and gems of literary brilliance that help bring those unlike us into focus and, as a consequence of our illumination, bring us together on and off the page. I appreciate your patience.

Though I'm gonna do it anyhow.

- dg


Dietrich Kalteis said...

I've been meaning to check Chester Himes out.

Susan C Shea said...

I spoke to an African American women's book club in Oakland last year and they told me they used to have a Chester Himes reading club. I had heard of him, but haven't read any of his books. Will be added to my TBR list now.

RJ Harlick said...

I've enjoyed seeing everyone's selections this week. A very diverse group of books as far as type of mystery is concerned. I do however note a sad lack of another type of diversity. Of the 15 books recommended only 4 were by female writers. I find this curious when you consider female crime fiction writers likely outnumber male writers.

Danny Gardner said...

I understand, RJ. In my case, I went for books that:

A) Address communities that are either given short shrift or overlooked in mystery/crime;

B) Represent authors whose work has fallen into obscurity (Vern E. Smith,) haven't found their audience as they may have if they represented the mainstream (Henry Chang,) or suffered for their writing by being out of sync with the desires of mainstream audiences in their time (Chester Himes.)

Proportionately, black Americans who are free to participate in publishing comprise around 10 percent of the population. Asians a mere 5.6 percent. These were the strongest examples of the need for diversity I could muster from my own bookshelf.