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.