November 8, 2010

A Hot Day In L. A.

Mix politics with racism and black revolutionaries, and you get an exciting debut novel about an ex-private detective trying to solve the murder of two men killed in a bar on a hot day in Los Angeles.

Two years before Walter Mosley’s novel, Devil in a Blue Dress, was published, Gar Anthony Haywood published his first novel, Fear of the Dark, for which he received the St. Martins' Press/Private Eye Writers of America Best First Private Eye Novel Award. He has written seven novels featuring Aaron Gunner, two novels featuring the husband and wife amateur detectives Joe and Dottie Loudermilk (Retired Couple), and two novels under the pseudonym Ray Shannon.

Fear of the Dark introduces private detective Aaron Gunner. In the violent opening scene, a White man, Denny Townsend, walks into a Black bar in South Central Los Angeles and fatally shoots Buddy Dorris, member of the Black revolutionary organization, The Brothers of Volition, and J. T., the owner of the bar. Dorris’s sister, Verna Gail, asks Aaron Gunner, former private detective, who now works as an electrician for his cousin, to find the White man with the crazy eye who killed her brother. Gunner doesn’t want to get back into the detective business. He quit the business after he was unable to safe the young daughter of Al Dobey, a pimp who had hired him to find her after she was kidnapped. He prefers continued wallowing in his self-imposed misery. But, the money she offers and her body convince him to take the case.

Gunner and J. T.’s wife believe J. T., not Dorris, was the target because she heard J. T. talking angrily on the phone to Jimmy Price, Sweet Lou Jenkins’s lawyer. Sweet Lou, a major drug dealer, wants an empty building J. T. owns.

Gunner realizes that whatever he has gotten himself into is deeper and more complicated than he at first thought when he wakes up in his car after being knocked out while watching a gym where Townsend worked out, and sees a dead Townsend in the passenger seat. Los Angeles Homicide detective Lt. Matthew Poole threatens to charge Gunner with murder unless he finds the killer. He gives Gunner 72 hours to be a detective again because he believes Gunner’s story that he was setup.

“You’re supposed to be a cop,” Poole reminds Gunner and advises him to act like one to save his “ass.”

The setup convinces Gunner that the shooting was random and maybe Dorris not J. T. was the target. Finding the killer pits him against members of the Brothers of Volition, Sweet Lou, and a white political operative who wants to start a race riot to help his boss win an election.

Fear of the Dark has two climatic scenes, though the final scene might be considered a wrap up instead of anticlimactic. Ordinarily, I would condemn two such scenes, but in this novel, they are appropriate.

Haywood shows his storytelling skills in a complex plot that maintains the rapid pace and respect for two of the hardboiled genre conventions: beautiful young women and plenty of violence and gunplay. Although he departs somewhat when he has Gunner sleep with his beautiful client.

His use of the third person omniscient point of view, with Gunner’s narrative voice predominant, gives the reader second hand knowledge of what the Gunner thinks and feels. Gunner’s is the predominant voice in Haywood’s use of the third person point of view. The only drawback to his use of the third person point of view, though I tend to favor it, is the reader sometimes can’t tell if the sociologic generalizations are the author’s or the detective’s.