December 3, 2011

The Case of the Microwave Murder

I considered Erick G. Benson’s debut novel, The Weight-Pile Murder, a failure because of flaws in its structure, problems with the prose, and a lack of tension. He has corrected those flaws in the second Tiger Price murder mystery, but I was steal not impressed.

In Framed Justice ( ISBN 978-0-595-43681-1), Tiger Price investigates the murder of a drug dealer for which his best friend’s son is on trial.

Mario Peck, the son of Price’s friend Paul, got into a fight with his neighbor Fred Dixon over a microwave oven in the hotel where he lived. Fred ended up dead after Mario stabbed him in the neck with a small knife. Somebody hit Mario on the hit, causing him to become woozy, so he didn’t know what happened next. Mario was arrested and accused of killing Fred.

Mario, electing to be his own lawyer, is denied access to his file. The Judge also denies several of the many motions he files. He and his father believe the police, the prosecutor, and the judge are conspiring to frame him. Paul hires attorney Larry Deter, but later tries to fire him because he thinks the attorney isn’t working hard enough on the case. The judge denies his request.

When Price asks Deter to hire him as his investigator, Deter refuses because he doesn’t want Price interfering and telling him how to try the case. This doesn’t stop Price from investigating the case on behalf of his best friend. Upon his initial inspection of the crime scene and review of what little evidence there is Price sees sloppy investigative work.

During his investigation, Price finds himself going up against the system and Deter. He gets help from his friend Ethal, the very efficient clerk at the prison where he previously worked, and from an individual named Pilgrim who hangs out in front of his new office. The evidence he gathers is so compelling Deter cannot refuse to present it in court. The identity of the killer is revealed during Deter’s defense not during Price’s investigation.

Benson shows a flair for vivid description as he presents a picture of the dark side of poverty on a tour of the section of the city near the hotel known as the Black Tunnel:
TP was dumbfounded. The scene was like nothing he'd ever seen in his life. There were aluminum cans and broken bottles strewn across the entire street, sort of like nightmare alley. There were rats as big as cats strolling along freely down the sidewalk, almost carefree, as if marking out a territory. Two homeless-looking men were urinating side-by-side in the middle of the street and, more disgusting still, a woman crouched on the curbside of the street, defecating. TP continued to watch, shocked. The woman finished her business, pulled up her pants, and walked over to a man standing nearby. She placed her hand in a large bag of potato chips that he was holding.

His use of the third person point of view and vivid descriptions show Benson is capable of writing readable prose.

I didn’t like the presentation of the details essential to the plot through courtroom scenes instead of straight narrative. The introduction of a supernatural character who is clearly the deus ex-machina, though well done, is, nevertheless, unnecessary.

The religious element at times intrudes and adds nothing to the plot, character, or theme. For me, the main problem with both novels is the character of Tiger Price. He has no flaws and lacks emotional depth. He is too perfect. I admit he is not as annoying in Framed Justice as he is in The Weight-Pile Murder.

Sometimes, it is difficult to tell whether the thoughts expressed about society, the judicial system, and God are those of Tiger Price or his creator.

November 5, 2011

Debut Failure

Erick G. Benson, is a playwright, film and television producer, and former parole agent and correctional officer for 12 years in California, which experience obviously gave him some insight into the prison life he so authentically describes in his debut novel The Weight-Pile Murder. 

I find it difficult to write a negative review of a novel for two reason. First, I want readers to read the novel and form their own opinions. Second, my reason for writing this blog is to persuade readers to read crime novels by African American authors, which means I must include novels I don’t like. Although the central character in The Weight-Pile Murder is interesting, the novel was disappointing.

Newton Black, leader of the Black Confederate Movement Organization, is killed in the weight-pile, the area of the prison yard where the inmates do weight lifting. Investigative Lieutenant Tiger Price, after working in the California Prison system for 30 years, is three weeks away from retirement. Even if it means delaying his retirement, he feels he must solve the Black murder  because, he tells his supervisor, Captain Davenport, “my inner spirit continues to tell me I must complete this mission.”

Price, nicknamed Tiger because his investigative skills are rumored to be “fierce, relentless, energetic, and full of courage as likened to a tiger,” is a 50-year-old widower with two daughters in college. After he retires, he plans to open his own private investigation business. He is very religious, gets down on his knees every night to pray, and he twice asks God for help in solving the case. However, there is no indication that he attends church regularly. For a man who works among all types of criminals, he is an idealist and shows a remarkable lack of cynicism and self-righteousness.

Price’s investigative skills are recognized by his superior and others on the staff, including himself. He has an interrogation method that he proudly describes in too much detail as he formulates questions to ask each inmate on his investigation list. He describes how evaluation of body language is significant. After describing the eyes and hands, he needlessly discusses the tongue.
The tongue is one of the smallest parts of the human body, and more than oftentimes proves to be the most dangerous. The tongue can spew multitudes of filth and can destroy lives in an instance. The tongue can also offer a gentle fragrance of joy. The tongue can cut as well as comfort.

In an interrogation, the tongue may be important because of what is said, but the description rather than showing the importance of the tongue shows how Price can sometimes sound self-righteous.

Benson fails to fulfill a promise he suggests in the opening. Lieutenant Price is sitting in his car in the empty parking lot of a fast food restaurant eating his lunch when he is surrounded by several police officer with drawn guns pointing at him. He manages to identify himself after the supervisor appears. The supervisor explains that the fast food restaurant was robbed 15 minutes ago. Price later checks with the manager of the fast food restaurant and learns the identity of the robber didn’t come close to resembling him. The robber was white and short, he is black and over six feet.

The opening incident promises a motif of racism, causing the reader to expect more confrontations between White and Black inmates or White authorities and Black inmates. No further incidents of possible racism are depicted, thus racism is neither a minor nor a major theme.

In using first person point of view, Benson attempts to match the prose to Price’s personality, making him sound like a bureaucrat and a straight arrow. The result is a lack of separation between dialogue and narrative. Benson has long paragraphs in the middle of which he will insert dialogue, and sometimes the quotation marks at the beginning or end are missing, making it difficult to tell where dialogue ends and narrative begins.

Lieutenant Tiger Price is too good, so good that he is annoying. Even the prisoners like and respect him. He has no faults—was a loving and devoted husband, is now a loving and devoted father, and is exceptionally good at his job. I also was disappointed in the lack of tension, except in the opening scene. At no time is Price or his staff ever in danger from the inmates.

The structure of the novel is awkward, the prose at times clumsy, and the righteous tone irritating.

Benson has written two more Tiger Price novels. Framed Justice I’ll review in my next post. Black White Boy is scheduled for release in the Fall of 2012.

October 1, 2011

The Firecracker Fails to Explode

In Firecracker, Haywood’s second novel under the pseudonym Ray Shannon, the firecracker of the title is Clarice (Reece) Germaine. Like Ronnie in Maneater, Reece is a strong woman who refuses to become a victim.

Reece is a partner in a public relations firm in Los Angeles. Eight months before her current situation, she spent a week in Las Vegas having fun with Raygene Price, the star tight end for the Dallas Cowboys. Raygene, feeling generous, gave her a $25,000 betting ticket.

Despite taking precautions, she became pregnant and is now eight months into her pregnancy. She agonizes over whether the ticket is really hers or whether it belongs to Raygene, and she should return it. Since Raygene won’t give her the amount of child support she believes she is entitled to, she decides she’ll use the ticket to bet on the Arizona Cardinals to beat the Oakland Raiders in the Super Bowl. If Arizona wins, she will be 1.25 million dollars richer.

Raygene has his own troubles. His money manager stole his money, and he is almost broke. His mother becomes his manager and refuses to give Reece the amount of child support she wants. But his troubles really begin when his boyhood friend, a “wanna be black,” white boy named Trip just released from prison, asks him for money to finance a drug deal. He refuses to believe Raygene doesn’t have any ready money, and threatens to ruin Raygene’s career with information about a boyhood indiscretion. Raygene decides the betting ticket is his way out of the situation. Reece refuses to give him the ticket, even when he tells her about Trip, thus setting up a confrontation between her and Trip.

The protagonist of the subplot is Aeneas Charles, a private detective whom Raygene’s agent, Stanley, hires to watch Raygene and keep him out of trouble at least until the new contract negotiations with the Cowboys are completed. Charles has a problem of which he is unaware. The woman who was his partner on the Newark, New Jersey police force is in Las Vegas. She has not forgotten that she lost her job due to his testimony. When she discovers Aeneas is in Las Vegas, she concocts a revenge plan.

The pregnant super woman is certainly an attention getter. The novel, for me, fails because of the uninteresting characters and an unnecessary subplot. Raygene is the stereotypical dumb jock whom I neither liked nor disliked. Trip the “wanna be black” white boy is interesting on first meeting but becomes rather predictable. EY, his Black bodyguard, has to be the dumbest bodyguard in all of crime fiction. Raygene’s Black bodyguard Brew gets religion after listening to an evangelist on the radio. The private detective subplot slows the pace and contributes nothing to the plot.

My purpose in this blog is to encourage readers of crime fiction to read novels by Black writers. Please don’t let my negative opinion prevent you from reading Firecracker. You may like the novel.

September 4, 2011

Strong Woman As Victim

Anthony Gar Haywood, using the pseudonym Ray Shannon, wrote two crime novels on the theme of the strong woman as a victim who fights back.
In the first novel, Maneater, Rhonda (Ronnie) Deal, a junior development executive at Velocity Pictures, is a beautiful woman fighting her way to the top in a business dominated by men. The problems she has in the office with her male rival dwarfs the trouble that finds her when, sitting in a bar drinking a beer and thinking about how to get even with her male rival, she witnesses a big, Black thug snatch a small, young white woman off a bar stool and start beating her. Ronnie gets up and hits the thug over the head with the beer bottle. While he is stunned, she cracks him across the nose with the bottle. When she looks around, she discovers the young woman has fled, and realizes it is time for her to run, too, before he regains his senses.

The man Ronnie knocked temporarily senseless is Neon Polk, a psychopath who hires out as a money collector for drug dealers and other nefarious characters. A pissed off Neon vows that Ronnie is his “blood enemy.” He gets Ronnie’s address, attacks and rapes her in her home, and threatens to repeatedly do it if she doesn’t pay him $50,000 in a week.

Ronnie knows that if she pays Neon, she will become his slave for the rest of her life. If she doesn’t, she is dead. She realizes that she needs help from a man as mean and dangerous as Neon. She finds her knight in shining armor in an ex-con who has submitted a screen play with an urban setting to Velocity Productions. After reading the screen play, she thinks Ellis Langford is the right man to go up against Neon.

Ellis, the protagonist in the subplot, is a parolee recently released from prison and is working as a pizza deliveryman. Aside from the constant aggravation his parole officer causes him by checking up on him, his own trouble begins when he delivers pizza to two Mexican brothers waiting in a motel room to complete a drug deal. The younger brother decides to beat up on Ellis just for fun. A mistake. Ellis tricks them out of the room one at time and puts both in the hospital. They escape the hospital and go looking for him with revenge on their minds.

When she finally meets Ellis, Ronnie sizes him up:

“Ronnie had seen her share of Hollywood poker faces in all their endless variety, but the one Ellis was wearing now was something altogether different. It was as blank and uninformative as a new oil canvas. She had no clue what the man was thinking, or what emotions, if any, she had stirred in him. Compounded by his edgy, catlike beauty, which Ronnie had immediately felt the pull of despite herself, the writer's indecipherability left her with no choice but to maintain a defensive posture toward him.”

Later, after she explains her situation and asks Ellis for his help, he explains to her why she thinks he can help her with Neon: “’The wannabe screenwriter, nigger ex-con you figured oughtta be a cinch to bribe into whacking a stranger for you. Man did it once for nothing, why wouldn't he do it again for a few thousand dollars, right?’”

Will the partnership work? And will they get Neon before the Mexican brothers get Ellis or Neon gets Ronnie?

I enjoyed this relaxing novel because of its fast pace, unrelenting violence, and the tough female protagonist. The villains are true villains with no redeeming characteristics. The two protagonists are flawed but, to use the most favorite word of reviewers, likable characters.

Although I enjoyed the novel, the plot is too pat. It reads as though the novelist was following instructions in a book on how to write a novel.

August 6, 2011


After six Aaron Gunner novels and two novels featuring amateur detective Dottie Loudermilk, Gar Anthony Haywood abandoned detective stories and wrote a crime novel in which the friendship of three friends is severely tested.

In Cemetery Road, the central character and narrator, Errol “Handy” White, reflecting on his situation, remembers that his grandfather “used to say that there were many paths a man could take during his time on earth, but sooner or later, they all brought him down the same one: cemetery road. There was no running from it, there was no hiding from it”


He earned the nickname Handy because of his skill repairing mechanical and electrical devices. He takes things apart and puts them back together for exercise and “for the sake of learning the answer to a single, unrelenting question: Why?” Handy is not above lying for what he believes is a good cause, but sometimes knows his lying is self-serving. At times selfish, he still tries to be a good friend and father.

After an absence of 26 years, Handy returns to Los Angeles from his home in St. Paul Minnesota to attend the funeral his boyhood friend R. J. (Robert James) Burrow, who was allegedly killed in a drug deal gone bad.

Back in his repair shop in St. Paul, Handy is haunted by R. J.’s death. He doesn’t accept the official explanation, and fears that who ever killed R. J. might be coming after him because of a robbery he, R. J., and their friend O’Neal Holden committed 26 years ago. The robbery was his idea and it’s his fault that R. J. is dead. He convinces himself that he wants justice for R. J.

The fear that he is next on the killer’s list forces him to return to Los Angeles to search for the truth of what really happened. During his search, he learns that after R. J. was paroled from prison, he got married and has a daughter who works as a PI in Seattle, and, Handy, thinks she might help him find out who killed R. J. and why.

O’Neal, who is mayor of Bellwood, a small town not far from Los Angeles, does not believe that they are in danger and thinks Handy is being paranoid. Nevertheless, he agrees to use his contacts to help Handy.

Cemetery Road is a thoughtful novel. The rather complex plot relates what is happening in the present to what happened in the past. The back and forth from the present to the past and back again doesn’t slow the pace, which changes from fast-paced action to the slow working of Handy’s thoughts in which he takes apart his past life and views things from a different perspective. Cemetery Road has a few twists and turns, a red herring, and a sure fire surprise ending.

July 30, 2011

Saturday Snapshot July 30

Saturday Snapshot meme is on Alyce’s blog "at home with books." To participate post a photo that you (or a friend or family member) have taken then leave a direct link to your post in the Mister Linky below. Photos can be old or new, and be of any subject as long as they are clean and appropriate for all eyes to see. How much detail you give in the caption is entirely up to you. Please don’t post random photos that you find online.


July 2, 2011


In Going Now Where Fast, Gar Anthony Haywood introduced retired senior citizen sleuth Dottie Loudermilk, who, with her husband, travels around the country in an Airstream trailer home. Along the way, trouble just seems to find them.

We learn a little more about the Loudermilks in the second novel Bad News Travels Fast. Joe retired “from the El Segundo, California, Police Department,” and  Dottie retired from the ”faculty of Loyola Marymount University.” Upon retirement, they decided to make their home the open highway: “the question wasn't how often we'd like to leave home, but how fast we could get out of town, and where we could best hide for the remainder of our lives.”  

Trouble again finds the Loudermilks while they are in Washington DC visiting their son Eddie. He is arrested and charged with murdering Emmitt Bell, a member of his little protest group whom he and the other members, Stacy, Eileen, and Angus had kicked out. He and Eddie had argued in Eddie’s apartment while Dottie and Joe were present shortly before Emmitt was found dead from a stab wound with a knife Eddie possessed. The warning from the two Washington DC detectives handling the case do not stop Dottie and Joe from looking for evidence to prove their son did not kill Emmitt.

The plot involves the search for a book that might contain dirt on a US Senator. Emmitt had asked Stacy for $500.00 to buy the book that he claimed would make a big splash. Dottie discovers the name of the book on the back of the luggage tag in Emmitt’s bag: “Get It In Writing—The Power of Modern Litigation.” She, Joe, and their daughter Maureen, who comes from California when she discovers the license plate number her parents gave her to check belongs to a car in the congressional motor pool that a Capitol police officer was using to follow Joe and Dottie, begin searching for the book. They feel it is the key to why Emmitt was killed and could lead to the killer.

I enjoyed Bad News Travels Fast. Dottie, even if she is meddlesome and clever at getting husband Joe to do what she wants, makes it fun to read. She is a strong woman who will not let the officials prevent her from proving her son innocent. The novel also has its humorous moments. In the prologue, Dottie acts crazy in front of the Lincoln Monument, telling the other tourists she saw Lincoln’s eyes move. I had to smile at the way the Loudermilks faced danger when I read the incident in which the they find themselves in danger of being killed in crack house.

The big flaw in the plot is Haywood’s failure show who put the book in the place where it is eventually found, and how they got it there. Since the book is the key to the solution of who killed Emmitt and was found in plain sight, how it got there and who put it there are important.

No, I can’t reveal the location of the book for it would spoil your enjoyment in finding it for yourself.

June 4, 2011


Gar Anthony Haywood must have grown tired of his Aaron Gunner series, for in his seventh novel, the detective is a wife and mother. The narrator and central character of the humorous Going Nowhere Fast (ISBN: 0-399-13917-6) is 53 year Dottie Loudermilk. She and her 52 year old ex-policeman husband Joe retired, sold their home, bought an Airstream trailer home, and hit the open road.

Although they did not invite him, Bad Dog, nee Theodore, the youngest of their five grown children and the black sheep of the family is with them when they begin their journey. He wants them to give him money to get to Pittsburg where a trainer for the Oakland Raiders, he alleges, will give him a job.

When they reach the Grand Canyon, they think they have lost him at the last stop. Returning to the Airstream after their morning run, two unpleasant surprises that will keep them from “going nowhere fast” greet them.

Bad Dog followed them and is hiding in the closet with a gun.
In the toilet sitting on the seat is a dead man.

The investigating park rangers turn the case over to the police in Flagstaff. The Flagstaff police arrest a man caught driving the dead man’s car, and he immediately becomes the main suspect.

The FBI take over the case and warn Dottie not to interfere. Of course  curious Dottie ignores the warning because she wants to know who the man on the toilet is, who killed him, and why the FBI is involved. She feels the police have the wrong man in custody. Her curiosity leads her, Joe, and Bad Dog on a dangerous adventure in which she will confront two hitmen, the football player who is chasing Bad Dog, and a menacing mobster in the Federal Witness Protection program.

In the subplot, Bad Dog doesn’t tell his parents that he had a job with the Raiders looking after their star defensive end. He was supposed to keep him out of trouble, but, thinking he could do it better if he got him away from his friends and teammates, he took him to a place Bad Dog frequented, and they both got drunk. The player was suspended and find $1,000. Bad Dog must pay the fine or suffer a few broken bones.

In stories in which husband and wife work together, the wife wins most of the arguments. Dottie Loudermilk is no exception. She has a way of persuading Joe to do what she wants without him realizing he has lost the argument. She wants to return to Flagstaff to visit the dead man’s widow but Joe wants to heed the FBI’s warning and not meddle in the mess.

"’Dottie, for God's sake-‘ Joe sighed.”
"’If you don't want to go, we won't go. I won't say another word. But San Antonio, Texas-or, worse yet, New Orleans, Louisiana-is hundreds of miles away from Flagstaff, Arizona, Joseph Loudermilk the Second-and that's an awful long way to go without hearing the sound of another human voice. Isn't it?’"

“I smiled and dug into my salad again.

“A half hour later, Joe made a right turn out of the res­taurant parking lot instead of a left, and another page was written in the Dottie Loudermilk Handbook of Shameless Bluffing.”

She also has a way with words. Her description of the football player: “I was standing directly in front of him, my neck turned up at a ninety-degree angle so that I might see his face. It was like trying to spot the heliport atop the World Trade Center from down on the street”

The Loudermilks are two Senior citizens who do not go gently into the good night upon retirement, and that is why I like Going Nowhere Fast. Bad Dog and the football player provide misdirection, humor and Deus ex Machina. The Deus ex Machina is not a surprise or distracting because it is well prepared for. The ending is one hell of a surprise.

May 14, 2011


Gar Anthony Haywood mixes elements of hard-boiled genre with elements of locked room mystery in the last novel in his Aaron Gunner series. All the Lucky Ones Are Dead (ISBN 0-399-14540-0) opens with Los Angeles PI Aaron Gunner taking on the first of two cases. The manager of a radio station asks Gunner to protect his prize talk show host, who has been receiving threats and is maybe being followed. Gunner immediately dislikes Sparkle Jones, a Black female conservative, because of her smart mouth and arrogant, know-it-all manner. To complicate matters further, Jones doesn’t want a bodyguard.

He refuses to take the case until her car is blown up. Then, he rationalizes his decision: “On occasion, pressed into a corner by financial straits, Gunner found it neces­sary to work for a wrongheaded blowhard like Sparkle Johnson in spite of his wishes to do otherwise. It wasn't easy, but he could manage.”

He hires Jolly Mokes, a veteran with whom he served in Vietnam, to watch Sparkle. Jolly is fresh out of prison on parole, where he served time for killing his wife in It’s Not A Pretty Sight. Before the case is over, Gunner confronts a former enemy, the Defenders of the Bloodline. I think Haywood included this plot to get rid of the Defenders of the Bloodline, the self-appointed guardians of the Black race, because he disapproves of their actions and their philosophy. The plot has the hardboiled elements of constant violent action and a real blast of an ending.

The second case of a dead rap artist is a mixture of locked room mystery and the gunplay of the hardboiled. Rapper CE Digga Jones (real name Carlton William)is found dead in his apartment. The police rule it a suicide because the door was locked from the inside, and no one was with him. Benny Elbridge, Digga’s absentee father, doesn’t believe he committed suicide, though he hasn’t seen his son in many years and wasn’t around during his growing up years. He asks Gunner to prove it wasn’t suicide. Since he has money to pay him, Gunner takes the case.

Gunner is no fan of gangsta rap and isn’t happy about having to rub elbows with “thugs who knew how to sample and rhyme, so-called security men eight days out of San Quentin, and power-mongering record execs who spent more time cutting lines of coke than they did distribution deals”

Lily, the owner of the bar that Gunner frequents, expresses, maybe, Haywood’s true attitude toward rap music “’…It’s just a lotta noise and bad language. ‘Muthafucka’ this, and ‘muthafucka’ that, boom-boom-boom’”

Digga’s wife and his manager accept the suicide verdict, but not his mother Coretta, a woman who “in the flesh exuded all the charm and sensitivity of a rusty hacksaw blade.” She doesn’t want an investigation but refuses to explain why. Bume Webb, the owner of the company for which Digga recorded, also doesn’t accept the suicide. He is a suspect because Digga threatened to leave his company. The main suspect is another rapper, 2Daddy Large,“…a dreadlocked, broad-shouldered, dragon-nostriled young brother…”), who has a thing for Digga’s wife Danee.

Being a PI in Los Angeles is a dangerous business. When Gunner gets out of his car and approaches the door of Danee’s house to question her about Digga, he finds himself dodging bullets from a .45 Danee, in a window, is holding in her hand.

Of course, there is a note which neither the police nor Benny has seen. Much of the plot involves Gunner searching for what he believes may be a suicide note.

Haywood skillfully uses the mixture of locked room and hardboiled elements without slowing the pace of the novel. Both plots, however, deserve a novel in their own right. Also, two characters surnamed “Jones” having no relation to each other could confuse some readers. Another plotting flaw is common to all the Gunner novels. The endings in are uncomfortably similar—a shootout between Gunner and the bad guys.

I like PI Aaron Gunner because he is entertaining. Sadly, he is in none of Haywood’s remaining novels.

April 7, 2011


My kids gave me an e-reader, a Nook, for my 75th birthday. So, instead of a book review essay this month, I felt compelled to write something about e-books and those gadgets that are used to read and store them.

For quite a while I had wanted to experience what it was like reading a book on an e-reader, but I was not going to buy a reader, no sir, because I disliked the things from the time the first one hit the market. Taking the advice of that cliché “don’t knock it until you’ve tried it,” and since it was a gift, I decided to try the Nook.

That the e-reader can hold thousands of books does not impress me. I can read only one book at time, and I can’t touch or see the books on the reader as I can those on my bookshelves. I also don’t like the fact that I might not even own the books I paid $9.00 for. As I understand it, at least from, the seller of the books can delete them from the reader at any time.

The Nook had 100 books already stored on it that are in the public domain and that can be downloaded for free from the Gutenberg web site. I had read and had most of them on my bookshelves. I deleted most of them and chose to read Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, which I had not read.

My  Nook is black and about 4.75 inches wide and 7.5 inches long. The screen is 3.5 inches wide and 5.00 inches long. It is in other words about the size of a paperback book. The home, menu, shop, and back buttons are on the left edge, and in the lower right corner is a big button with small raised dots that are used to turn the pages and resize the text. The on-off switch is on the top right edge.

It requires two hands, one to hold it and the other to push the various buttons. Having to push the tiny buttons to turn pages is rather awkward for me. I miss the rattle of turning paper pages, the imaged smell of ink,  and trying to keep from breaking the spine of new books. Although I don’t like writing in the margins of books, I do it anyway when a thought about a word, paragraph, or idea hits my mind as I’m reading. I can’t do that with e-readers.

I confess that I read faster with the large text and the small screen of my Nook. Still, it isn’t enough to endear me to e-readers.

I’m not one to deplore change. I welcome it. I don’t dislike technological changes and the new gadgets they produce. I welcome the gadgets and I enjoy trying them out.

When I was younger, I rode the bus from Richmond, California across the Bay Bridge to my job in San Francisco. During that ride, I read a good many books in paperback. I imagine that if I had had an e-reader in those days, I would have gladly welcomed it.

March 14, 2011


When Last Seen Alive (Penguin, ISBN 0-525-17027-6), the fifth novel in Gar Anthony Haywood’s Aaron Gunner series, opens with the private investigator working for Connie Everson, wife of Inglewood councilman Gil Everson, taking pictures of her husband with other women. However, she complicates matters when she insists on pictures of her husband with one specific woman, but doesn’t tell Gunner the name of the woman or give him a description. Gunner is not happy with the peeping-tom case but it pays the bills. Since he is not a photographer and is also working a second case, he hires 17-year-old Sly Cribbs, a budding photographer, to follow councilman Everson. The teen is shot, and Gunner, blaming himself for putting Sly in harms way, needs to find the shooter and his or her connection to the Everson case.

One of the reasons Gunner takes on a second case is a beautiful, single woman, with whom, over the course of the investigation, he becomes romantically involved. Yolanda McCeary hires him to find her brother who goes under the name of Elroy Covington. Covington had been seen with someone he knew during the Million Man March in Washington DC and was last seen in Los Angeles just before he disappeared with Barber Jack, a straight razor wielding, fat, mean sociopath whom Gunner’s friends warn him against. He is cautioned to beware of the straight razor.

Gunner gets an even bigger surprise when he realizes he is also in conflict with the dangerous Defenders of the Bloodline, the self-appointed guardians of Black dignity whose mission is to teach a lesson to Black people whom they decide are a disgrace to the race. They consider themselves to be “the assassins for the people.”

A flier the group circulates serves notice “To the serpents among us. The liars and sinners in blackface who work in legion with the white Devil to shame our proud people. The defenders of the bloodline will purge you from the house of Africa until none of you remain. Some have already met the sword of righteousness. Many more will follow. Your house is close at hand. Allah, the most merciful, is on our side.”

The group is interested in Covington because as a reporter on a Chicago newspaper, he wrote a story about Black people that was untrue and unflattering. He is, to them, a disgrace to the race. The Defenders warn Gunner to back off when he gets too close to the truth. Like any good PI, he wants to finish the job, so ignores the warning.

I like this novel for its graphic action scenes. If you like vivid descriptions of fights and near escapes, then you will enjoy When Last Scene. Both plot lines have genuine surprise endings for Gunner and the reader. I was disappointed, however, with the Connie Everson plot because it seemed incomplete, and left me wondering if maybe Haywood forgot about his characterization of her.

February 10, 2011


In his three previous Aaron Gunner novels, Gar Anthony Haywood dealt with the themes of Black revolutionaries, gangbangers, and the conflict between the Los Angeles police department and the Black community. The theme of the fourth novel in the series is abused women.

It’s Not A Pretty Sight, (ISBN 0-399-14132-4), opens with Gunner reluctantly taking on a job for Roman Goody, owner of Best Way Store to find Russell Dartmouth, who owes Goody for merchandise he bought on credit. Gunner finds Dartmouth, a mean, dangerous man, and tells Goody. This angers Dartmouth because Goody hounds him for payment. Gunner is unaware at the time that he has become the target for the big man’s anger. However, the case is secondary to the primary case Gunner investigates but is thematically connected to the motif of how psychopaths differ.

The primary case involving the brutal murder of his ex-fiancée Nina is personal for Gunner. He didn’t want to get married so he broke up with her but remained friends with her and her mother, though he hadn’t spoken to either in many years. He wants to find the real killer because of his past love and friendship with Nina.

His investigation takes him to Sisterhood House, a refuge for abused women, and he learns some surprising things about Nina that he would rather not have known. What he learns causes him to include four women in the house as suspects. Everyone in Sisterhood believes Michael, her abusive husband, killed Nina.

The visit to Sisterhood House gives Gunner the opportunity to state his opinion on abusive Black men, and I suspect he speaks for the author.

Mrs. Singer, the director of Sisterhood House, asks Gunner his opinion of abusive Black men. Gunner opines that they  "have a self-esteem problem, number one. And number two, they can't handle pressure they feel black women put on them to be perfect. Perfect lovers,  fathers, providers--the works."

He blames Black women because “the standard some black women hold a man up to is unreasonably high. And…failing to meet that stan­dard can sometimes do as much to cut a man down at the knees as anything another man could ever do to him. Possibly even more."

From the police, Gunner learns that the gun that killed Nina also killed another man. The owner of the gun is another psychopath, a hitman named Angelo Dobbs.

Working two cases simultaneously requires, of course, two dramatic conclusions: in the first, Gunner faces off with the big man, Dartmouth. He has some sympathy for the psychopath because “Killers like Russell Dartmouth took no pride in what they did; they saw their acts of violence not as works of art, but as unfortunate measures the world had forced them to take.”  

But Angelo Dobbs is a different creature altogether. Gunner and a police detective go after the crazed killer. He has no sympathy for Dobbs: “The men and women cut from his mold were ashamed of nothing; they treated their every accomplishment like a badge of honor, something to show the world with pride and self-satisfaction.  No ­crime was too vile or too senseless to confess to; no theft, no rape, no disfigurement of the innocent. And certainly no murder. Murder was the greatest trophy of all.”

Haywood suggests that abusive men are psychopaths, and that not all psychopaths are the same, and some may need our sympathy. His handling of the psychopathic theme is good. However, as a Black man, I felt uneasy about his opinion of why Black men abuse Black women. It allows Black men the luxury of refusing to accept their violent behavior. The devil didn’t make him do it, the Black woman did.

The novel shows that somethings in the Black community are no different from those in the White community—dangerous psychopaths come in all colors.

It’s Not A Pretty Sight is an entertaining and informative novel.

January 17, 2011


In his first novel, Fear of the Dark, Gar Anthony Haywood’s PI, Aaron Gunner, battled Black would-be revolutionaries. In the second novel, Not Long For This World, Gunner’s attitude toward gangbangers changed from hostility to sympathy.

The theme in You Can Die Trying, the third novel in the series, is the uneasy relationship between the Los Angeles Police Department and the Black community.

Sixteen year old Lendell Washington and his cousin Noah Ford attempt to rob a liquor store and flee when things go wrong. Officer Jack McGovern chases Washington into a dark alley. McGovern fire two shots into the darkness, killing Washington. Since no gun or bullets are found, the Department concludes that McGovern killed Washington in cold blood.

Because of his policing methods, the Black community hates and fears McGovern. Some members on the Department, including the Chief, believe getting rid of McGovern will improve the reputation of the Department in the Black Community. The Chief also hopes it will help his chance of becoming mayor.

Mitchell Flowers, a concerned citizens who believes in justice, hires Aaron Gunner to prove that McGovern shot in self defense. Flowers claims he saw the shooting and that Washington fired first. He didn’t come forward when the incident happened eight months ago because he had been warned not to.

Gunner thinks the warning made Flowers feel like an “Uncle Tom”:

Being made to feel answerable to the whole of one's own race was a burden few white men ever had to shoulder, yet it was a black man's birth­right from day one.

Still, he is reluctant to take the case because it means going up against the LA police department, and he must convince the Department that he is not working for Washington’s mother, who is suing the Department.

For Gunner, Mrs. Washington and her lawyer Milton Wiley are more trouble than the police. With Wiley’s encouragement, Mrs. Washington believes Gunner is working to help the LA police Department white wash the case. Wiley, sensing that Gunner mistrusts him, tries to explain his actions in terms of his two laws theory:
There has never been only one law in this country, Mr. Gunner. You know that. From the moment your ancestors and mine were first brought here, there has always been two separate codes of behavior in effect: the white man’s and the black man’s. that I have spent seven years of my life practicing the former does not mean I am ignorant of the latter.

The murder of Lendell’s cousin Noah further complicates Gunner’s investigation because it suggests an unknown player, someone who didn’t want Noah to talk.

Gunner’s search for the gun, the most important evidence, leads him into a poor section of Los Angeles to a homeless man called Dancing Fred who may have information about the gun. This allows Hayward to editorialize through Gunner’s thoughts on homelessness:

In alleys and old warehouses, along railroad ties and freeway off-ramps, Dancing Fred's comrades clustered against the cold, trying to eke dignity out of a beggar's existence. White men in lifeless sport jackets and soleless brown shoes; black women swathed shawls and blankets three layers deep; children wearing clothing others had given up for rags—all of them made for a slow parade to nowhere that was difficult to take in.

The theme of the police versus the Black community is made explicit through Gunner’s discussion with his policeman friend Kupchak. He doesn’t accept Kupchak’s explanation that the police see the relationship as a war because they feel the Black community hates them. Gunner explains that it is fear not hate. Kupchak admits that some decent people live in the Black community but points out that those whom the police have to deal with are lowlifes and that an officer cannot mistake one for the other, or he is dead.

In the end, Gunner realizes that Kupchak’s view is similar to that of Dancing Fred. Dancing Fred describes the world as cold and life as dangerous and that “You can die tryin’” to survive. For the police it is about survival; for those in the Black community facing the police, it is also about survival.

Haywood presentation of his societal ideas through dialogue not narrative comment by the author helps give his novels some plausibility. However, his telling rather than showing that McGovern is a bad cop lessen the plausibility but helps maintain the pace of the novel .

You Can Die Tryin’ is not best of the three novels, but it is still enjoyable.