December 22, 2007

A PROBLEM: SURVIVAL OF YOUNG BLACK MEN


Survival for young Black men living in the inner cities is tough, and the negative role models often found in the neighborhoods are of no help. This is the message of Joseph Nazel’s novel Death For Hire. Although published in the 1970s, the problem the novel examines is as relevant today as it was then.
The story opens with the teenagers waiting outside an Assistant District Attorney’s home. Turtle has the gun and Tracy is the driver of the get away car. Tracy becomes so nervous that he drives away just before Turtle fatally shoots the ADA. Tracy who hits a police car in his hurry to get away, While the police are hunting him, Turtle escapes on a bus. The remainder of the story is the hunt for Tracy by the police, Turtle, and Sugar Man, the boss drug dealer and the boys’ employer. Spider, a Black reporter for a weekly newspaper, is tipped to what is happening and he, too, starts looking for Tracy to save him from the police, who he believes will kill him first and later ask questions.
Death for Hire is a problem novel. It suggests that the cause of the untimely deaths of so many young Black men is poverty and the lack of positive role models in the Black community. The two negative role models in the neighborhood are Tracy’s father, Moses Brown, and Sugar Man. Moses moved his family from the south to Los Angels in the hope of making a better life for Tracy and his sister. He fails to find a decent job, ends up in the projects, and spends most of his time drinking. His only relation with Tracy is constant arguing.
Sugar Man’s philosophy of survival is to be the baddest man in the neighborhood by making everyone fear him. The dangerous occupation of drug dealing in the inner cities decreases young Black men’s chances of living past their teenage years. Adults like Sugar Man contribute to the low life expectancy of young Black men, who often see him as the person to be imitated because he has money, women, a good house, and a big car. He uses teenagers to do his dirty work because he can easily control them through fear. He hires the two boys to assassinate an assistance district attorney because the ADA is about to indict him.
The only on positive role model in the novel, Mike the store owner, fails to survive in the violent environment. He is gunned down protecting his store.
Spider, the reporter, married to a White woman, doesn’t live in the projects where Tracy and Turtle live, and is the voice of the author who offers no solution to the problem of low life expectancy of young Black men.
Nazel need not apologize for this message novel. Though it is not great, it gets his point across in graphic detail in straight forward, easily readable prose. I recommend social workers, police, and anyone who deals with young Black men read Death for Hire.

November 3, 2007

FINDING THE BOSS DEALER


In KILLER COP, Nazel wrote a fast-paced but disappointing novel about Black Los Angeles police officer, James Rhodes. The plot had no real ending. It just stopped. In BLACK COP (Holloway House, 224 pages), Nazel shows that he can construct a tight plot that moves along with the pace of two trains speeding toward each other on the same tracks.

James Rhodes, a member of the narcotic squad of the Los Angeles police department, goes under cover in a Black neighborhood to find the boss who is responsible for the drugs flooding the neighborhood. He suspects that the police have been unable to catch the boss dealer because an informant in the department lets the dealers know when a raid is about to take place. Only his chief knows that Rhodes is undercover.

As in any thriller, Rhodes is threaten, beaten, knocked on the head, and beds two women, one of whom, Sue, becomes his girl friend. He, of course, also shows his toughness with his fist and his willingness to use the .350 magnum as he encounters a couple of would-be tough guys in a poolroom where, because of his ability to handle himself, he makes friends with Blackjack, the toughest dude in the room until Rhodes beats him in a fair fight. He soon learns from Blackjack and others that the boss dealer in the neighborhood is Bill Wilson. What he doesn’t know is that Wilson actually works for a white car dealer, Morrie Slater, who works for the syndicate. The train wreck involves Wilson moving to eliminate Slater and take over as the sole boss in the Black neighborhood and Rhodes and the informant in the police department all moving toward the climatic shootout.

BLACK COP is a better read than KILLER COP and will mildly entertain fans of police thrillers. The storytelling is conventional and the prose that of a writer of popular novels. As he did in KILLER COP, Nazel through the collective voice of the residents, describes the conditions in the Black communities of Los Angeles in the 1970s.

October 10, 2007

POETIC HARDBOIL/NOIR


“Hardboiled and noir poetry” is what author Anthony Rainone, writing in the magazine MYSTERY SCENE, calls the method of telling hardboiled/noir detective stories in verse. As an illustration of the method, he features poet Kevin Young and his hardboiled/noir BLACK MARIA.

Like the pulp paperbacks in the 1940s and 1950s, the images on the covers of the book are designed to entice male readers: the upper half of the front shows the title in black letters with a white shadow against a black background. The lower half shows the picture of a woman from the waist down in a read dress and red high heel shoes. She has a gun in her left hand. The back shows her upper half. The images say to the reader: “you will find the usual sex and violence typical of the hardboiled/noir genre in these poems.” In case the reader might miss the structure of the book, on the front cover Young lets the reader know that the book is a collection of poems “Produced & Directed” by him, indicating that the structure of the story is that of a film storyboard.

Young has taken the cliches of the hardboiled genre--the PI who drinks, the dame with whom he is in love but can’t possess, The Boss gangster who has the dame, the gunsel whom the boss assigns to watch the dame--and, using verse and film structure, imagined an interesting way of telling a hardboiled detective story. The two central characters are private investigator, A. K. A. Jones, and femme fatale, Delilah Redbone, singer and actress. Jones is in love with Delilah but she belongs to “The Boss” and will not leave him for Jones. They meet secretly and make love in sleezy hotel rooms. She has his nose so wide open, that he robs a bank to get money to keep her in the social status to which she has become accustomed. The story is not about crime. It is a romance: Jones wants Delilah and does things to try to persuade her to leave The Boss, but she is not ready for domesticity.

BLACK MARIA is an interesting experiment in storytelling. Using film structure to tell the story contributes to the curiosity of the method, which allows for an economy of words. Descriptions are kept to a minimum and parodies the 1940s style hardboiled novel. Young describes Delilah’s legs as
Her pinstripe two-lane
legs, her blackmail menthol.

The rhyme scheme, used sparingly, is a couplet: A. K. A. Jones describes how Delilah left after a night together:
She split so quick
I got motion sick.

The rhythm is sing-song and monotonous, so much so, that I had difficulty staying awake as I read.

Of course, telling stories in verse has a long tradition, but this doesn’t mean that it works with every type of story. I admire Young for experimenting with verse in telling a hardboiled/noir story. He shows his skills as a writer by taking the cliches of the hardboiled genre and weaving them into the semblance of a story. However, he is not a storyteller. The poems are not written for readers of mystery/crime fiction but for readers like the poet himself. Readers of mystery/crime fiction might enjoy the poems for their novelty but are not likely to become fans of this method of telling hardboiled/mystery stories.

September 5, 2007

KILLER COP ON THE RUN

After reading an article in Mystery Scene magazine lauding Black author, Joseph Gober Nazel (1944-2006), I decided to find out a little about him and to read his novels. Nazel wrote more than 60 books in many genres: biographies, histories, romances, thrillers, and mysteries. He was a journalist and wrote articles for several magazines. He also edited the weekly newspaper The Watts Times.

I chose KILLER COP because of the ironic twist on the term “cop killer.” James Rhodes, a member of the Los Angeles narcotic squad is the “killer cop” of the title. To the Black community he is a man with a gun and therefore no different from the White cops who “carry death with them.” The reader isn’t told much more about him, except that he has a girlfriend, Sue, and is well aware of the Black community’s feelings.

Most of the action involves gunplay that occurs over a span of two nights. The story opens with Martin Xavier, an informer for a secret government agency, running from men who are trying to kill him. Wounded, he escapes by hiding in the back of Rhodes’s van. Rhodes doesn’t discover him until he unloads the van at the cabin in the mountains a short distance from Los Angeles where he has gone for a vacation. As he is unloading the van, men start shooting at them. He barely escapes into the cabin carrying Xavier. Xavier is weak from lose of blood and can’t tell Rhodes who is shooting at them. Rhodes manages to retrieve his handgun and rifle, kill three of the men, all in the dark, and escape down the mountain with Xavier in the van.

Rhodes wakes up a short time later in a doctor’s office. The sheriff of the town informs him he is under arrest for the murder of Xavier. The White, redneck sheriff doesn’t listen to Rhodes’s explanation or the fact that he is a policeman. Rhodes manages to escape and return to Los Angeles.

Before Nazel describes the action in Los Angels, he introduces the subplot involving the Black Freedom Fighters (BFF), the organization on which Xavier was informing. In the subplot, Nazel presents the dilemma of Black militant organizations. Quincy, the leader of the BFF, has rejected violence. He tries to persuade his followers that “offing the pigs” means all the members will likely be killed. Burley, his rival for the leadership, seems to be the better speaker, though he is less educated and more of a thug. He thinks the cops have killed Xavier and persuades the others to try to revenge him by killing a few cops. The group follows him into the night, unaware that he, too, is an informer to the killers who are trying to kill Rhodes.

In the climatic scene, Rhodes arrives at the BFF meeting house looking for help, and Peggy, Xavier’s girlfriend, arrives later with Xavier’s notebook. We do not learn what is in the notebook, but we assume that it is the motive for the killers trying to kill everyone associated with Xavier. Rhodes confronts Quincy and asks for help. Quincy wrestles with his conscious whether to again pick up a gun and shoot at somebody. He makes up his mind when the killers start shooting into the building.

The gunplay in KILLER COP kept me on the edge of my seat, but the flaws in the plot diluted my enjoyment. In the prologue, Nazel gives the impression that the subject of the story is the conflict between the Black community and the Los Angeles police and that James Rhodes will be caught in the middle. However, the community is never involved in the action. The larger flaw is we are never told how the killers knew Xavier had hid in Rhodes’s van, or how they found Rhodes in the mountains?

A writer should never be judged based on one novel. Nazel may have had a bad day when he wrote KILLER COP. I will reserve judgment until I have read more of his novels.

August 11, 2007

“Justice Isn’t man-made…”


Friendship betrayal, sexual blackmail, lesbianism, incest, adultery, mixed race marriage, politics, revenge, and murder all are present in Linda McKeever Bullard’s complexly plotted legal/romance thriller SHADES OF JUSTICE (Dutton, 325 pp). In Gwendolyn Parrish, the protagonist/narrator, Bullard has created a character that so disgusted me because of the foolish decisions she makes in her ambition to become a judge that I found it difficult to sympathize with her.

Her preoccupation with becoming a judge causes difficulty for Gwen in her relationship with her rebellious 15-year-old daughter, Ashleigh. She believes that a rich but jealous White man, Dirk, can help her retain the judgeship when she gets it. Foolishly, she marries him with no thought of how it will affect Ashleigh, thus bring more trouble down on her head. She also has to cope with her ex-husband and Ashleigh’s father, Kwame, and her friend Willette’s husband, Michael, who blackmails her into having repeated sex with him, which she admits she enjoys, after a one-time affair. Trying to cope with all these problems and comfort, at times, her drug-using friend C. C., who is a judge, causes Gwen to make some poor decisions.

Gwen’s first opportunity for a judgeship ends in disappointment when Willie Shalander, the powerful County Commissioner who controls the appointments of Blacks to judgeships, gives the next opening to someone else. She accepts an appointment to a part time position as a municipal court judge because she believes Willie when he promises he will take care of her next time. Willie’s murder dashes her expectation of a superior court judgeship. The appointment of Willie’s daughter Willette, with whom Gwen attended law school, to replace him on the County Commission, revives her dream of becoming a superior court judge.

Her troubles really begin when she leaves her private practice to become Willette’s assistant. Willette arranges for her appointment as special prospector to handle the case of Charles Garrett, Willie’s alleged killer. From Marvella, Willette’s mother, she learns that Charles Garrett knew something about Willie’s business affairs. Breaking the rules to get at the truth, she talks with Garrett without his attorney present. He suggests that she investigate a certain property Willie, and now Willette, owns. The property is a crack house and the records prove it belonged to Willie.

Gwen learns later from Kwame, who was Garrett’s lawyer, that Willette has hired a lawyer to defend Garrett. This makes her curious but not yet suspicious because Willette is her friend. However, Garrett is killed and Willette fires her. She now realizes that something is not right and turns detective, sort of.

From C.C., Gwen discovers that Willette knew about her and Michael all the time because he talks in his sleep and that C. C. killed Willie for Marvella, Willette’s mother. C. C. did it because she and Marvella are lovers. Willie got Willette pregnant when she was in college and for that, his wife hated him.

When C. C. dies mysteriously while she is with Gwen during drug induced haze, Gwen realizes that Willette has set her up to be framed for the murder. She escapes being accused of murdering Garrett and C. C. because of lack of evidence. She returns to private practice and finally realizes that in her ambition to become a judge she “was taking every shortcut known to man…”

When I read a novel in which several murders occur, I expect them to be solved. In SHADES one of the characters confesses to the murder of Willie. Bullard leaves hanging the other two murders but suggests who the killer is and the motives. I will not spoil the story by revealing the name of the killer or how Gwen exacts her kind of justice on Michael and Willette.

July 3, 2007

Rules Are Made To Be Broken


In PLAYING BY THE RULES, her second novel about the residents of Lemon City, Elaine Meryl Brown uses the detective/crime genre to tell the central story of Medford Attaway’s search for his birth mother and two sub-stories. The first substory is about two outsiders on the run from the law. The second is a love triangle involving the outsider, Jeremiah, Medford’s girlfriend Louise Dunlap, and Medford.

In the prologue, Brown relates the history of a past event that has a significant affect on the present. The event is the placing of a baby on the doorstep of Clement Attaway, who adopts and raises him as his own. The church lady who placed the baby on the doorstep breaks Rule 2 (IF YOU CAN’T BE HONEST, YOU MIGHT AS WELL BE DEAD) and Rule 6 (WHAT GOES AROUND WILL ALWAYS COME BACK AROUND AND HIT YOU IN THE HEAD). The baby, Medford, now a grown man in 1973, sets out to find his birth mother, setting up the mystery of the central plot. Medford becomes a kind of detective looking for clues to the identity of his birth mother. The reader is not on pens and needles waiting for him to find her, though the revelation of her identity is a try surprise, which is the best part of this rather predictable novel.

When two outsiders—Jeremiah and his nine year old sister Ruby Rose—arrive on Nana Dunlap’s doorstep after their car breaks down, she is immediately troubled as to which of two rules should be obeyed. Under Rule 8 (DO BUSINESS AT HOME FIRST, THEN WITH OUTSIDERS YOU CAN INVITE INTO YOUR HOME, AS A LAST RESORT) she should turn them away. But seeing the poor condition of Ruby Rose, she invokes Rule 7 (HELP THOSE IN NEED AND NEVER JUDGE THEM BY THE HOLES IN THEIR SOCKS), and invites them into her home, setting in motion the first subplot. Jeremiah is on the run from the law because he rescued his sister from a cruel foster mother. This subplot of course asks the question what will Billy Dunlap, the deputy sheriff, do when he finds out who they really are.


Medford in his quest to find his birth mother neglects Louise, who has an affair with the outsider Jeremiah, initiating the second subplot. His neglect causes Louise to break Rule 5 (CHEATING MAKES YOU LOWER THAN A DOG SCRATCHING UP A WORM IN THE DIRT). The love triangle subplot also is too predictable. I did not believe for one minute that Louise would leave Medford for the outsider, and Brown’s attempt to show how conflicted Louise is about her plight is unconvincing. That Louise, angry at Medford for seeming to neglect her, would have an affair with the outsider is not surprising considering the fact that for all of her supposed sophistication, she has slept with only one man—Medford. The problem with the subplot is the predictable elements of romance plots make it boring.

Brown combines the mystery genre and the romance genre. The mystery genre dominates and controls the main plot. The subplots attempt to provide some suspense fails because I, for one, didn’t find the characters interesting enough to hold my attention. Involving nine-year-old Ruby Rose in the love subplot is a nice touch because readers love children and animals. It doesn’t, however, save the novel from being unconvincing and boring.

Brown continues to uses similes to set the folk tone, only this time some are truly bad. Louise feels “as angry as a Virginia tiger beetle stuck on its back” sees Medford as “practical as straws on a broomstick”. Medford had been “more restless than a church bell waiting for Sunday to roll round.”

However, the description of Sadie, the custodian of the church records, is laugh-out-loud funny. Her behind “resembled two cantaloupes stuck together on top of thin legs that looked like twigs of asparagus.”

I dislike PLAYING BY THE RULES because the plot is humdrum and too predictable. The true surprise ending does not save the overall story. It only made me wish Brown had come up with a better plot because I like the residents of Lemon City.

June 4, 2007

“The Rules aren’t made to be broken”


In the prologue of LEMON CITY, her first novel, Elaine Meryl Brown tells the story of the founding by five Black men of the town of Lemon City in a valley in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. One of the founders brought down from the mountain 10 rules by which the residents of Lemon City were to govern themselves.

Like any good mystery, LEMON CITY begins with a corpse. The dead man is Harry Lee Thompson, husband of Faye Dunlap, younger daughter of Granddaddy and Nana Dunlap. Faye breaks the first Rule of Lemon City (NEVER MARRY AN OUTSIDER. IF YOU DO, THE BOLL WEEVIL WILL BITE YOU BACK) when she returns home from college with an outsider husband. She tries to persuade Nana to accept Harry. Nana remains her that “the rules aren’t made to be broken.” Faye’s actions in marrying and bringing home the outsider are the central incidents that drive the plot.

The present time of the story is Thanksgiving Day 1973. All six members of the Dunlap family are under house arrests, suspects in the death of Harry. The events leading up to Harry’s death are told in flashbacks mainly from Faye’s point of view. While the plot centers on Faye’s actions, the narrative voice is not solely hers. Each of the six family members, Nana, Granddaddy, sister Louise, brother Billy, and his wife Elvira, get to say their piece.

LEMON CITY is not a murder mystery in the true sense of the genre. Harry’s death is the hook Brown uses to keep the reader interested. He is the convenient villain that the reader can focus on and not hate Faye for her defiance of her grandparents and The Rules. Brown’s real purpose is to tell the story through the Dunlap family of how the citizens of Lemon City govern themselves by The Rules and, by the way, show a little Black American history and culture in a small, seemingly isolated Black American town in Appalachia in the 1970s.

Brown’s use of similes gives the novel the folkloric tone and flavor of southern Black speech. The picture of Harry as Nana sees him while he is alive so visually captures Harry that the reader cannot forget him. He reminds her “of a stick of beef jerky….” The narrator describing Harry in death sounds like a southern storyteller sitting on the porch telling about what happened in the town in 1973: Harry is “dead as a slug caught out in the sun after a heavy rain.” As for Lemon City, “…change was as foreign to Lemon City as a silkworm feasting on a Virginia suncured tobacco leaf….”

The beautiful descriptions of Lemon City convey the impression of a quiet little town isolated in a valley of the Blue Ridge Mountains barely if ever touched by scandal. However, the residents get their news from TV, radio, books and newspapers, and are as aware of current events, especially involving Black folks in the U. S., as any city dweller.

The comic relationship between Nana and her neighbor Old Miss Johnson, long time friends who have become bitter rivals in the annual tomato-growing contest at the Annual County Fair, lightens the mood and makes the novel fun to read. As in many a small town, events and historical time in Lemon City are marked by the County Fair.

Brown’s use of similes is both a strength and a weakness. They give the characters and place believability. Some of the similes are good, but used too often, many will be, and are, just plain bad. Annoying is Brown’s mannerism of giving the complete year, make, and model of cars each time she mentions the same car. Harry’s car is an “…eight-cylinder, two-door white Pontiac GTO….” Telling the reader this once is enough. Any further mention could just be the GTO or Pontiac.

Good storytellers are rare. Brown is one of the good ones, and she writes prose that is fun to read. I like that she uses Black culture of Appalachia as the setting because it shows we Black folks live in the mountains as well as the cities.

May 9, 2007

The First Entry in my Canon



I recommend to readers of detective stories a novel I consider a classic of the genre and which I have included in my canon of Black detective/crime fiction. THE CONJURE-MAN DIES: A MYSTERY TALE OF DARK HARLEM by Rudolph Fisher (1897-1934) is the story of African mysticism and murder in Harlem. Fisher was a major literary figure in the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s and early 1930s. During his short career, he wrote only two novels, THE WALLS OF JERICHO and THE CONJURE-MAN DIES. At the time, THE CONJURE MAN DIES was the only detective novel written by a Black American.

THE CONJURE MAN DIES should be canonized because Fisher shows that he was a master of the closed-door type mystery and because of his use of African culture and Black American characters and culture. THE CONJURE MAN DIES, however, is not a social document demonstrating Black folks could write novels. It is a good story well told.

THE CONJURE-MAN DIES is the classic closed-door mystery. Frimbo, an African fortune-teller, is found dead in his office but reappears later very much alive and helps New York police detective, Perry Dart, and Dr. John Archer, M. D., who also helps Dart, identify the victim and trap the murderer. To the classical detective story formula, Fisher adds the milieu of the Black community of Harlem, Black detectives, an African victim, and African and Black American cultures.

Fisher also goes against the classic conflict between the amateur and the police detectives. Dart and Archer are the Holmes and Watson of Harlem. In their relationship, neither Dart nor Dr. Archer is superior to the other. Both think logically. But Dart thinks like a detective, speculating much of the time, while Dr. Archer has a scientific mind and is more cautious in his observations and conclusions. He wants scientific proof.

Frimbo, a tribal Chief in his home country of Liberia, was the intended victim but his servant, who, to protect the Chief, often took his place, was murdered instead. In helping Dart and Dr. Archer, Frimbo becomes the third detective, putting his life in danger. Dr. Archer describes Frimbo as “’a native African, a Harvard graduate, a student of philosophy—and a sorcerer.’” Fisher explores African culture and philosophy through interesting philosophical discussions between Frimbo and Dr. Archer, who dislikes Frimbo because of his superior attitude.

Bubber Brown, a streetwise Harlemite and would-be detective, adds the comic to the story and is instrumental in helping solve the crime. He is a misdirection character who lightens the gothic atmosphere and leads the reader through the dark Harlem underworld, which adds two gangsters to the most likely suspect list because of their relations with Frimbo. Bubber joins the search for the killer in order to clear the name of his friend Jinx from the list.

“Dark Harlem” in the title suggests a gothic atmosphere. Where in Harlem can such atmosphere be found? How about a funeral home full of dead bodies? Frimbo’s office is in the same building as the funeral home. His seemingly mystical ability to tell the fortunes of the middle class Harlemites who visit him and the necessary examination of the dead bodies when the original murder victim disappears creates gothic atmosphere Harlem style.

If you enjoy Sherlock Holmes stories, you will enjoy THE CONJURE-MAN DIES: A MYSTERY TALE OF DARK HARLEM. I wish Fisher had written more novels about his two Harlem detectives Perry Dart and Dr. John Archer and at least one novel about detective Bubber Brown.

April 7, 2007

Karen Grigsby Bates Continues to Show Promise


In plain brown wrapper Karen Grigsby Bates showed promise in her handling of the detective genre. Complicating plot with five corpses in Chosen People she continues to show promise and is willing to take risks. Five corpses is a lot of dead people to hold the reader’s interest.

The first corpse is that of author James Simpson Lee Hastings, Jr. who bleeds to death from a stab wound in front of the bookstore where he is signing autographs of his book Chosen People. Los Angeles journalist, Alexa Powell, while researching his life for an article, tries to answer the question of who wanted him dead and discovers many folks among the Black haute bourgeoisie disliked him because his book peels the cover off the Black upper middle class. During her investigation, two more corpses turn up. Myron Bournewell, a white philanthropist jumped or is thrown off a building, and Lenora Walker, wife of Hiram Walker, a prominent Black architect and friend of Myron’s, is attacked and killed by three pit bulls.

Unlike in plain brown wrapper in which the relationship between Alex and Paul and their questioning of suspects generates suspense, Bates legitimately generates and sustains suspense in Chosen People by having Alex investigate a possible connection between the deaths of Hastings, Bournewell, and Lenora Walker. The list of suspects becomes longer when she learns from a Black publisher that before his death, Hastings had written a second soon-to-be published book exposing the “down low” brothers among the Black elite. Hastings was gay and HIV positive and had infected his fiancĂ© from a prominent Black family. He also had a relationship with Hiram Walker, who subsequently infected his wife Lenora and his friend Bournewell. Someone among the gay brothers might also want him dead.

The fourth and fifth corpses turn up in the last fourth of the novel. While interviewing Martha Dexter, the dowager of an old Black upper Middle class family at her request, Alex discovers the old lady has poisoned her niece, Shelia, who was engaged to Hastings. The old lady commits suicide after she attempts to poison Alex to prevent her from exposing the shame the family will suffer if it becomes known that Shelia was engaged to a gay man. Alex wrecks her car and injures herself trying to escape from the old lady.

Bates’s second novel has the same flaw as the first. Alex doesn’t solve the murders. Hospitalizing Alex relieves Bates of the necessity of having her actually solve the three murders. As she did not in plain brown wrapper, Alex thinks like a detective when she figures out that the “Simp Hastings seemed to be the genesis of it all, the hub from which everything radiated.” However, she learns from her Los Angeles police detective friend that the killer confessed to killing Hastings and that the death of Lenora Walker was a case of mistaken identity. The puzzle of why the killer confessed is left unsolved. A good detective story allows the detective to detect, which means he or she must figure out the whodunit and why before the confession.

As for the death of Bournewell, the reader is left to speculate whether it was murder or suicide.

Bates may not always hit the right notes in her storytelling, but her ability to give the reader a look into the class structure of the Black community recommends the two novels. In plain brown wrapper, she gives readers a peek into the Black middle class. In Chosen People, she pulls the covers off the Black upper middle class. Yes, Alex’s love interest, Paul Butler, reappears.

March 17, 2007

Hitting the Right Notes, Sort Of


In her first novel, plain brown wrapper: an Alex Powell Novel, Karen Grigsby Bates shows that, for the most part, she knows the right notes to hit in a conventional detective novel.

Everett Carson, managing editor of the Black magazine Diaspora, is murdered in his Los Angeles hotel room while preparing to receive an award from the NABJ (National Association of Black Journalists). Jim Marron, the White lead detective on the case, asks Alexa Powell, a journalist on a Los Angeles newspaper, and her friend Paul Butler, a journalist on a New York City newspaper, to question some of the journalists who are at the conference because they may be able to get information the Black journalist will not give him. What, however, really motivates Alex to get involved is her belief that the Los Angeles police do not investigate the death of Black folks as thoroughly as they do White folks.

Bates hits some smooth notes in creating convincing characters. Alex, the main character, is intelligent, smart-mouth, attractive, and likeable. But at times readers may wish, as some of the male characters do, she would shut up. I think readers will like her.

Though she comes very close, Bates manages to avoid making Alex’s partner and romantic interest, Paul Butler, the usual dog of many Black romance novels. He is intelligent, handsome, and a smooth talker with the ladies. This is, of course, still a stock character but readers will like him too, as do Bates and Alex.

Surprisingly, Jim Marron is not the stock white, bigot type policeman. He, too, is likeable.

Bates hits a sour note in the plot. Alex and Paul fail to solve the case through use of their “little grey cells.” Instead, the reader, who probably has solved the case by the time he or she reaches the end, watches the murderer confessing while attacking Alex. She is not attacked because she knows who the murderer is but because she failed to do something the murder had asked her to do. The story would be better if she were attacked to keep her from revealing the killer’s identity. The motive for the attack on Alex and the confession are simply not plausible.

Another discordant note is the suspense for two-thirds of the novel is sustained by having the detectives travel cross country from Los Angeles to New York, Martha’s Vineyard, Washington DC, and San Francisco to question the suspects. This allows Bates to give the reader a peek into the Black middle class but also tends to make the novel too loose. The only suspense generated is whether she and Paul will have sex.

They sleep in the same bed at the hotels sometimes to save money but don’t engage in lovemaking. This may keep some readers reading but not diehard detective fans. Alex and Paul are put in some danger about two thirds of the way through when they interview the last suspect. But the real, suspenseful action occurs near the end when they are back in Los Angeles and a car hits Alex’s car as she and Paul are driving back to her place after having dinner. Who hit the car? Was it the murderer because they are close to solving the case? These questions keep the reader reading.

Bates follows the rules in this less than suspenseful detective novel. But following the rules does not always make for a good suspenseful story. Moreover, the detectives must always solve the case through use of reason. The motive for the killer confessing must be because he or she is trapped and sees no way out. If the killer does not confess, the murder of Everett will not be solved. One of the rules of the genre is the detective must be seen sifting through the clues and coming up with possible solutions until everything comes together to reveal the murderer.

February 4, 2007

The Magic of Detective Stories

I grabbed I, The Jury from among the paperback books on my grandaunt’s bookshelf one day while I was visiting her because on the front cover a blonde is taking off her blouse while a man sitting in a chair is pointing a gun at her.

The recent addition of The Mike Hammer Collection, Volume 1 (containing I, The Jury, Vengeance is Mine, My Gun Is Quick) to my library of detective/crime novels reminded me that the first popular novel I read was I, The Jury. I was in my freshman year in high school, and I chose the novel for two reasons: we didn’t read such novels in class and the picture of the blonde taking off her blouse. I, The Jury introduced me to the magic of hardboiled detective stories. It was filled with the two things to excite a teenage boy, violence and sex. Like any teenage boy, I secretly wanted to make love to the beautiful woman on the cover and, since I was small for my age, to be as tough as Mike Hammer, who didn’t take crap from nobody. I was a very impressionable young boy and often lived in my imagination.

I didn’t read another detective story until I was in college when, rebelling against the required reading, I returned to my teenage reading and discovered Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and Chester Himes. My greatest discovery was Poe’s “Murders in the Rue Morgue” which was one of very few required stories that I enjoyed. After I graduated, I discovered the greatest detective storyteller, Arthur Conan Doyle, and his creation, the greatest fictional detective, Sherlock Holmes.

In examining why I find reading detective stories magical, I took a clue from the poet W. H. Auden who, in his essay “The Guilty Vicarage,” stated that an analysis of the kind of detective story he enjoyed might “throw light, not only on its magical function, but also, by contrast, on the function of art.” For him, the story conforms to “certain formulas” for example, the setting is rural England and the “basic formula is this: a murder occurs; many are suspected; all but one suspect, who is the murderer, are eliminated; the murderer is arrested or dies.”

I look not for honesty, art, or reality in detective/crime stories, but for how well contrived (yes contrived, for all fiction is mere contrivance) is the story. Did the author so involve me that I didn’t notice his tricks? Did he bring it off? Most of all was the story entertaining? Did the author stick to the formula of the genre or deviate from it? Yes, I like such stories because they have a basic formula that allows me to judge how entertaining they are.

Thus, the magic of detective stories is in their adherence to the classical virtues of storytelling. The formula makes sure that they always have a beginning, a middle, and an end. They hold the attention by keeping the reader asking “and what happens next” and forcing the reader to wonder, “how will it end?”

Although I sometimes enjoy the intellectual exercise some detective stories provide because I am of a philosophical turn of mind, I don’t favor the classical closed-door or puzzle stories. When I read detective/crime stories, I only occasionally wish to exercise my mind. Mainly, I want to lose myself and become the detective, or more exactly, follow him as he moves ever closer to solving the case.

I like the hardboiled detective stories because of the slam-bang, kick the villain in the balls action. Whether we admit it or not, we readers of hardboiled crime and detective novels like experiencing the violence vicariously in the same way we enjoy watching a hard hit on a quarterback.

Now that you know the kind of detective/crime novels I like, you can judge when I’m showing in my analysis of such novels.

I am now reading plain brown wrapper: an Alex Powell novel by Karen Grigsby Bates. I hope to post my analysis next month.


January 9, 2007

Introduction: What And Why

The Why: I started this blog to solve my problem of being a reader and unread writer. I hope it will help me to realize my life-long dream of writing about books.

I am new to blogging and creating and maintaining a blog terrifies me. However, after reading about a couple of senior citizens who have created blogs and how much they enjoyed it, I thought I’d give blogging a try. At 71 years of age I at first felt that I might not be able to master all of the technical stuff. Well, I’ve managed to get my blog up and running (at least I hope it’s running).

I retired in 1990 and obtained a master’s degree in English literature in 2004. I have continued to read because that is what I love to do, but I have wondered for the last two years what could I do with what I learned while obtaining my degree. I don’t fish, and I can’t sit on the porch in a rocking chair because I’d go crazy. One thing we senior citizens must do, according to what I’ve read, to stay mentally healthy is use our minds. I don’t do puzzles. I read. But I’ve found that reading is not enough. I need to communicate to someone my analyses of what I read, which is the only way to work the little gray cells, as Hercule Poirot would say.

Being the editor of the newsletter that provides news about the classmates I went to high school with is not enough to keep my mind busy. So, I decided to try blogging with the hope that it will help keep my mind sharp.

The What: I read mostly detective/crime fiction and critical opinions of such fiction. My main interest is in detective/crime fiction written by Black writers and hard-boiled fiction written by anyone. I also try to read other types of fiction, except romance novels. I’ll be writing 500-700 word critical essays on mainly detective/crime novels.

I’ll try to post an entry in my blog in the first week of each month. I don’t have the energy to post more frequently.

“A reader must check the desire for learning at the outset; if knowledge sticks to him well and good, but to go in pursuit of it, to read on a system, to become a specialist or authority, is very apt to kill… the more humane passion for pure and disinterested reading”. Virginia Woolf