January 7, 2012

Hannibal Jones, Troubleshooter

When I read reviews of crime fiction novels online and in newspapers and magazines, I always look for reviews of novels by Black writers, and finding such reviews sends pleasure through my old bones. I discovered Austin S. Camacho while reading the reviews in the online magazine “The Bookreporter.” According to the website fallforthebook Camacho “is active in several writer organizations, … is the 2005-2006 president of the Maryland Writers Association and is a regular speaker at various writer's and book lovers' conventions. He also currently teaches three writing courses at the Anne Arundel Community College.” Camacho works for the Defense Department and for several years has reported the news over radio and television for the American Forces Network.

In his discussion about the Black detective in crime fiction at the Bouchercon’s “Charmed to Death International Conference of Mystery Writers” Camacho stated, “It’s not about race. It’s about the characters. It’s about the mystery.

Like all good storytelling, hard-boiled stories revolve around the characters.”

However, he ends his discussion with the relevant observation that a Black writer of detective fiction can’t escape race because his character is Black: “So maybe, in a way it is about race. Because it’s about the characters more than it’s about the mystery.”

Camacho has written five detective and two action adventure novels. In his first novel, Collateral Damage, he introduces PI Hannibal Jones, son of a Germany mother and African American father. Hannibal considers himself a troubleshooter instead of a PI because, “Other people's troubles became his own. That was how he made his living since he resigned from the Treasury Department.” He is a tough guy who cares about the underdog. His working uniform is dark, wraparound Oakley sunglasses, a black suit and black gloves, black shoes, and in a holster under his right shoulder a Sig Sauer P229. He lives in a poor neighborhood in southwest Washington DC and drives a Volvo 850 GLT.

The opening of this complexly plotted novel begins the subplot. Monty, Hannibal’s 12 year old friend, has asked him to rescue Monty’s friend Nicky and Nicky’s mother from her abusive husband, Isaac. Hannibal shows up and knocks on the door. A big, pro-lineman type dude greets him in an unfriendly manner. He is about 2-3 inches taller and, at 325 pounds, about 100 pounds heavier than Hannibal. How Hannibal handles the situation illustrates Camacho’s skill at creating plot incidents to bring out the characters’ personalities.

Hannibal’s first job is a missing person case. Bea Collins, a middle-aged, successful Black interior designer who lives in an upscale neighborhood, hires him, at $500 a day, plus expenses, to find her missing fiancĂ©, a young white man named Dean Edwards. Hannibal thinks the young man may be a con man but doesn’t say so to Bea. He finds the young man and lets Bea know where he is. Soon afterwards, she calls Hannibal and tells him Dean may be in serious trouble.

When he reaches the Dean’s house, Hannibal finds bloody shoeprints leading to the bedroom where Dean is lying on the bed. He tells Hannibal that Oscar, his supervisor at the computer service firm where he works, is dead and that his mother killed him. Dean believes his mother killed Oscar because the murder weapon is the same knife used to kill his father, for which his mother was convicted. The police later find the knife in Dean’s apartment, making him the prime suspect.

The knife, or one similar to it, also was used in a murder 12 years ago in Germany. Bea persuades Hannibal to investigate Oscar’s murder to prove Dean didn’t do it. Hannibal soon finds himself not only trying to solve Oscar’s murder but the murder of Dean’s father 10 years ago in Virginia and a murder in his hometown of Berlin, Germany.

An Author’s debut novel, if it is good, is an invitation to read his other novels. Camacho’s Collateral Damage certainly invited me to become more familiar with PI Hannibal Jones, a tough, believable, and caring character.