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.