Here are a few of my favourite American crime novels/novelists. In honour of Black History Month, all the authors here are African Americans and, naturally, one of the major themes underpinning their writing is racism. Sadly, they are writing about the real experiences of people in the United States, both past and present. This is one of the factors that gives these works their immense power. For all of our authors, their personal experiences, ranging from casual racism to horrifying events, serve as a dark inspiration for their work.
Down the River unto the Sea by Walter Mosley (2018)
Walter Mosley is a native Californian, mother a Russian Jewish immigrant, father an African American. He is one of my favourite noir pulp writers, in the tradition of Chandler. Several things make his novels really great reads. Mosley has a gift for creating fascinating characters you can believe in, and some you can come to love even though they are deeply flawed. His men are better drawn than his women but they are all credible and there are some formidable female characters in the Rawlins and the McGill series of novels. Mosley struck gold with the psychopathic stone cold killer Mouse, introduced in Devil in the Blue Dress. Mosley knows how to invent a plot, possibly with an obscure racial element, layer it and then come up with some very human twists and flourishes to finish it off. His stories are very well told, engrossing and fast paced. But the most interesting element of his novels is social context. The Easy Rawlins mysteries are set in post WWII America, there are hundreds of great crime novels in this period – the difference here is that Mosley gives us a black perspective, we see ordinary black lives; exposing racism, hypocrisy, corruption and the social deprivation occasioned by attitude to “colour”. A key theme is black identity in twentieth century America, he offers an alternative reading of history, it’s a fascinating insight into a society not seen in crime fiction by white writers. He is a chronicler of the African American experience. I know he wasn’t the first but he may well be the most popular and I always learn something reading him. Then, of course, there’s the pure fun of the Easy Rawlins and Leonid McGill mysteries – top notch thriller writing.
Which brings us to my first choice, Down the River unto the Sea. This 2018 novel introduced a new character, Joe King Oliver, intriguing and empathetic, so now Mosley is responsible for a triumvirate of shamus’s among the best in modern crime fiction: Easy Rawlins, Leonid McGill and former detective first class Joe King Oliver.
So firstly, Down the River unto the Sea is entertaining, fast paced and witty – I didn’t put it down until I finished it because Mosley is so readable. His latest PI creation Joe Oliver is not instantly likeable but he grows on you. His office is on Montague Street, it looks out on a gentrified city block, Oliver has a cheap twenty-year lease thanks to former boss Sgt. Gladstone Palmer. It came at a price, Oliver helped Palmer’s son to beat a “domestic” rap. Oliver is an ex-cop thanks to a job for Palmer picking up a car thief to do the Chief of Detectives a favour. Tremont Bendix has reported his purple Benz stolen by a girl named Nathali Malcolm. Nathali is beautiful, young and friendly and Oliver falls for her story. Bendix was having an affair with Nathali, his wife caught them and he ended it, but she just hasn’t returned the car yet – no crime committed. Oliver isn’t thinking with his brain. Next day the police bust Nathali and she accuses Oliver of rape. Rikers prison is a nightmare, he’s attacked, abused, dehumanised and broken. Gladstone gets him out and sets him up, so he owes him. The only good thing in his life is his daughter. Then Cindy Acres turns up, she wants her politician husband followed. Only she’s not Mrs Acres, Cindy works for Albert Stonemason, who just happens to be running against Bob Acres in the upcoming election. So when Oliver finds out that Mr. Acres has a penchant for transvestite prostitutes, he helps Acres out, he doesn’t like being played, maybe that’s a favour that can be called in one day.
Out of the blue Nathali, now a married woman, writes to tell Oliver the truth about falsely accused him of rape. Willa Portman works for Stuart Braun, celebrity lawyer. He is defending Leonard Compton, aka ‘A Free Man’, political activist (founder of The Blood Brothers of Broadway). He is accused of killing two police officers. He was shot and wounded a few blocks from the scene carrying the murder weapon. Willa is worried that Braun is throwing the case, she’s fallen for ‘A Free Man’ and puts her saving up so that Oliver can figure out what is going on.
As always, the dialogue is savvy and sharp, witty in the best hard-boiled tradition but maybe a bit more sober in tone:
“she’s my daughter and you’re twelve miles of bad road.”
The characters are rounded, their motivations clear, apart from the essential psychopaths, and they are an eclectic and fascinating mix. The young daughter, Aja, a normal girl, is a foil for Oliver, Mosley loves this contrast from his granite detectives. He has that Dickensian gift for great names, Melquarth Frost and also names that mean something – Joe King Oliver is named after the legendary Cornet player and band leader beloved by his father.
A Free Man and Oliver are both boxed in tight, a way out seems impossible, the solution is clever and satisfying and keeps you hanging on to the very last page. There is less sex and a more considered approach to throwing fists here but Down the River Unto the Sea is strong on action anyway.
Themes here include gentrification, single parenting, home ownership, getting a job, drugs and violence. In Down the River Unto the Sea, a tale of modern day New York, some issues are less front and centre, more nuanced than earlier books but there is still that quiet rage against racism. The darkness comes from a heavier tone in the writing not the just the subject. Yet Mosley is still so readable and entertaining.
W&N 9781474608664 hbk *****
The Underbelly by Gary Phillips (2010)
LA author Gary Phillips is a novelist, short story writer and graphic novelist, who dabbles in experimental forms. His writing is socially aware and imbued with the spirit of hard-boiled era, particularly Dashiell Hammett, and he cites Richard Wright and Rod Serling as influences. Phillips has written fourteen novels and The Underbelly is one of the great modern political crime novels.
The Underbelly grips from the opening scene (a knife fight that places us firmly on the mean streets) all the way to the denouement, which is not what you might think from the early action and set up. It’s about the collision of two worlds, the marginalised and rich, the gentrification of Los Angeles that squeezes the existing community out – progress? Guess your opinion might depend on whether you’re rich or not. The Underbelly is a tight noir, action packed and full of black humour. Wall Street, Los Angeles:
“Unlike the street’s more notorious incarnation in Manhattan, the West Coast version didn’t boast of edifices and testament to giddy capitalism. The bailout around here was of the cheap whiskey and crack rock variety, the meltdown a daily occurrence.”
Savoirfaire is young and cocky, Magrady is a Vietnam vet, long in the tooth and wily. It didn’t occur to the young man that Magrady could back up what he’s saying. Magrady tells Savoirfaire to take Floyd Chambers off his loan book, no more leans on the man’s social security cheques. Savoirfaire thinks Magrady is muscling in on his loan sharking business. He fetches a knife and comes at Magrady. The older man puts up an arm, protected with padding, and the knife gets stuck. Magrady then delivers a kick to the knee and slams the car door on the young man, he drops the knife. Magrady sticks one of the Escalade’s tyres and again warns Savoirfaire off.
Janis Bonilla is the community adviser for Urban Advocacy. She is planning a demonstration for City Hall over the Emerald Shoals redevelopment plan and she’s been trying to get Magrady to become a UA organiser. Like a lot of vets, Magrady is homeless. A couple of days later a black and white pulls him over. LAPD Captain Loren Stover has him down as a person of interest in the murder of Jeff Currey aka Savoirfaire. Someone smashed his skull in with a heavy duty pry bar in Ladera Heights. Stover and Magrady have history dating back to the war in Vietnam, Stover holds a grudge, he sends Magrady to lock up. When Magrady gets out Bonilla tells him Chambers has gone missing, coincidence? It’s unlikely a man in a wheel chair did for Savoirfaire but Magrady starts looking for him. He finds a swipe card in Chambers things belonging to SubbaKhan, the company that did the environmental impact report on the Emerald Shoals Scheme. Why did he have it? Magrady is also looking into Savoirfaire’s murder. He comes across a couple of thugs who warn him off. Out of malice Stover has leaned on his landlord so he’s homeless again, and the police are busting community demonstrations looking for illegals. Fireworks follow.
The Underbelly deals with the plight of the vets, and the community being edged out by the developers with the connivance of the police. The novel seethes with a quiet anger at the way people are treated. It’s not a book that feels sorry for it’s characters. There is a great deal of humour here too, the scene where Magrady tucks up in a ball and gets the sympathy of the crowd when he is attacked by a thug will make you laugh. It’s entertaining but hard edged – no bullshit here!
There are some illustrative woodcuts and photos to accompany the text and an extensive interview with the author, which is a nice bonus too. Phillips says:
“If I want a polemic I’ll read non-fiction….if you’re going to tell a story, it should have characters that resonate with the reader and have a plot and structure that is not just an excuse to go on forever.”
This story has characters that resonate. Mulgrew Magrady is a wickedly good hero, a vet who stands up for what he thinks is right, a black man screwed by the system who still has his dignity and smarts. He won’t go down without a fight.
‘But sometimes the bad guy wins. What kind of morality is that?’ [interviewer]
‘Maybe that’s the hard truth, the real truth that life teaches us. When there are ambiguous endings or the bad guy wins.’
The Underbelly an attack rampant capitalism. Ticks all the boxes.
9781604862065 pbk *****
Real Cool Killers by Chester Himes (1959)
The name of Chester Himes deserves to be mentioned alongside the good and the great of crime fiction writing. Maybe we should be asking why he isn’t seen as one of the real masters of the art in the mainstream. He isn’t a very good black writer, he’s simply a very good writer. There are a lot of commentators who will tell you that the only possible reason is outright racism.
There is no doubt that racism was a defining issue for Himes, something he faced for most of his life. He was born in 1909 and he died in 1984. As a boy Himes was excluded from taking part in a school science demonstration with his older brother Joseph by his mother for misbehaving. Joseph was blinded by an explosion during the experiment, but the child was refused treatment under Jim Crow Laws at the local white hospital. Himes: “A white man was refusing; my father was pleading. Dejectedly my father turned away; he was crying like a baby. My mother was fumbling in her handbag for a handkerchief; I hoped it was for a pistol.” By 1928 Himes was brutally beaten when arrested for a serious crime, an armed robbery, he got a twenty-five year sentence at the Ohio State Penitentiary. Naturally his view of the police was coloured by this incident and it’s a theme of his fiction; an edgy cynicism and a healthy lack of respect for authority. Himes started writing in prison, he gained a reputation through short stories in magazines before publishing a novel. He was finally released in 1936. By the 1940s he was working as a script writer when If He Hollers Let Him Go was published. “Up to the age of thirty-one I had been hurt emotionally, spiritually and physically as much as thirty-one years can bear. I had lived in the south, I had fallen down an elevator shaft, I had been kicked out of college, I had served seven and one half years in prison, I had survived the humiliating last five years of Depression in Cleveland; and still I was entire, complete, functional; my mind was sharp, my reflexes were good, and I was not bitter. But under the mental corrosion of race prejudice in Los Angeles I became bitter and saturated with hate.”
He moved to France in the 1950s and lived out his life in Europe. Himes wrote a two volume autobiography, The Quality of Hurt (1973) and My Life of Absurdity (1976), and there is a fantastic biography by James Sallis Chester Himes A Life (2002).
A Rage in Harlem (1957) introduces the Gravedigger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson series that ran for more than a decade. In Real Cool Killers a white man slumming it in the black district Harlem, Ulysses Galen, is attacked by a black man with a knife in a bar, he flees for his life tripping over a drunk, Pickens, who then chases him shooting as they run. This is a slam dunk case, when detectives Coffin Ed and Gravedigger Jones turn up they find Galen shot to death and arrest Pickens. But Pickens is rescued from the cops by a street gang, the Real Cool Muslems, just a gang with false beards. When they Investigate the detectives find that Pickens gun is a theatrical prop, it only fires blanks, so obviously not the murder weapon. However, they still need to find Pickens if they are going to get to the real killer. Real Cool Killers is a street wise novel of immense power, a seething anger at the outrageous situation of racism and corruption in Harlem. The dialogue, setting and characters all seem to fit time and place perfectly. Naturally these policemen aren’t heroes, they are hypocrites, they abhor violence unless it’s something they are inflicting themselves, so they claim a moral high ground, bemoan societal standards and profess a belief in God and justice. Lots of violence and sex, realism and street savvy. This is a chaotic world where justice is a nebulous concept.
Penguin Classics 9780141196480 pbk *****
Two Honourable Mentions:
Attica Locke’s The Cutting Season (2013). Caren is the manager of an old plantation house called Belle Vie, early one morning when she is inspecting the grounds the gardener calls her over, something awful has happened. They have found the body of a young woman face down in a open grave with her throat cut. The police and the family who own the estate will need to be told, a school group is due to visit. One of the plantation workers has gone missing and now Caren wonders how safe she and her daughter are. Pacy, intelligent and original. Locke creates a dark atmosphere in this tale of the past coming back to haunt the present. Genuinely gripping.
**** Serpents Tail 978184668804
Iceberg Slim’s Trick Baby (2009). White Folks is a white negro (blue eyes, light hair), who uses his colour to prey on people in a series of elaborate grimy cons. This is Southside, Chicago, a ghetto where hustlers, gangsters and pimps thrive but only if they have real street smarts. White Folks and his partner, Blue, make it to the top of the game but they’re cocky, greedy and they keeping pushing it. Until the day they go too far and things start closing in on them, things get messy. Rich dialogue, loaded with tragedy, racism, chancers and danger. Gritty, relevant and realistic.
**** Canongate 9781847674319
I also decided to take a look at a new author I haven’t read before, I came across Barbara Neely, a writer I know nothing about but she sounds interesting and will appear in our golden oldie feature in the near future. Neely introduced African American proto-detective Blanche White. White works for a white woman in North Carolina, a woman who doesn’t trust black people, including Blanche. However, White solves crimes despite holding down a full time job. I’ll keep you posted.