January Magazine's continuing series of guides to the best in crime fiction's subgenres
Read about the Shaft CD in Blue Coupe magazine.
Suddenly, everybody's talkin' 'bout Shaft. And I can dig it. But, amid all the noise and hype surrounding this summer's big-bucks remake of the 1971 film, with all the boom boxes and car radios once more throbbing to the raw funk of Isaac Hayes' theme song, it seems a shame that the seven books in which Ernest Tidyman introduced John Shaft to the world will be essentially ignored. Sure, there'll be plenty of warm, nostalgic discussion about how the original flick jumpstarted the whole "blaxploitation" film boom of the 70s, but there probably won't be much talk about how Shaft, Tidyman's 1970 novel, also kicked off a literary precedent of sorts: the birth of the black private eye who would not go gentle.
Until Shaft made the scene, black private eyes were few and far between. The earliest one I could get a lead on is author John E. Bruce's Sadipe Okukenu, an operative for the International Detective Agency, who made his debut in the pages of McGirt's Reader way back in 1907. Sadipe, therefore, actually predated Dashiell Hammett's Continental Op by at least 15 years, making him not only the first black private eye in American fiction, but one of the very first fictional P.I.s, period. Bruce was a follower of Marcus Garvey, an early black nationalist, and he used Sadipe's globe-trotting quest for a stolen diamond in the McGirt's-serialized novel The Black Sleuth to comment on the state of race relations around the world. But Sadipe was a notable exception.
Most early African-American detectives were, regrettably, more along the lines of Octavius Roy Cohen's Florian Slappy, a "colored gentleman" who appeared in a string of popular short stories in The Saturday Evening Post during the early 1920s. Slappy was a rather ridiculous figure, a pompous dandy who owed more to minstrel shows than to Sherlock Holmes. He had left his hometown of "Bumminham, Alabama" for the bright lights of Harlem. Appearing in stories with titles such as "A Bounce of Prevention" and "Ham and Exit," it's obvious that we were supposed to find Slappy amusing. As the late critic William L. DeAndrea wrote in his Encyclopedia Mysteriosa, Slappy was "a decent, if bumbling detective, and his cases are well enough constructed to stand up, if the reader can overlook the prejudices of an earlier age."
The problem was that all those early black eyes were more curiosities -- played for laughs -- than anything else. They blipped across the cultural radar screen, and then mercifully vanished. But then came Shaft. After his first appearance, black gumshoes began showing up more frequently, and sticking around longer. Their place in detective fiction would no longer be trivialized or denied.
Shaft was truly one of a kind. He was a sharp-dressing ladies' man with expensive and refined tastes, but also capable of great violence and anger -- a black Mike Hammer who could hold his own in a white world. Not a cat to mess with, Shaft walked the mean streets of New York with a rough dignity and considerable presence, offering neither apology nor quarter. The Harlem-born former Marine certainly fit the definition of the ideal fictional detective, as it had been spelled out by Raymond Chandler in his classic essay, "The Simple Art of Murder": "He will take no man's... insolence without a due and dispassionate revenge. He is a lonely man and his pride is that you will treat him as a proud man or be very sorry you ever saw him." In other words, he may not have always been a nice man, but Shaft was always his own man. And, as the P.I. himself would say, if you didn't like it, you could kiss his black ass.
Rough-edged and pulpy as they are, Tidyman's Shaft books, concluding with The Last Shaft (1977), still rank among the toughest, most hard-boiled P.I. novels of the 70s. And the three films based on Tidyman's character -- Shaft, Shaft's Big Score (1972) and Shaft in Africa (1973), all starring Richard Roundtree -- despite their attempt to tone down our man, had an even bigger impact, achieving popularity with both black and white audiences. Of course, some people cried foul because Ernest Tidyman was white; but charges of blaxploitation are just a bum rap. It shouldn't matter whether Shaft's creator was white or black (or turquoise, for that matter) -- we're talkin' 'bout the art here, not the artist. Sure, it might have been really cool if Tidyman, who passed away in 1984, had been black, but he wasn't. So get over it, already! The NAACP didn't seem to give a rat's ass about his racial heritage when it bestowed its prestigious Image Award on Tidyman for his Shaft stories, so why should we?
In fact, with all of the current buzz arround the new Shaft, starring Samuel L. (Pulp Fiction) Jackson as the original P.I.'s nephew and namesake, now might be a good time to look at the world of detective fiction that originally gave birth to Tidyman's quick-tempered shamus.
As I explained before, believable African-American private investigators were mighty scarce before Shaft (Ed Lacy's Toussaint Moore being the notable exception), but many have followed in his footsteps. Indeed, Walter Mosley's Easy Rawlins, introduced in 1990, is one of the most highly regarded fictional gumshoes of them all, and certainly enjoys far more literary respect than Shaft ever received. Which is cool, because New Yorker Mosley is probably a better novelist than Tidyman ever could have been. But give the man his props -- Shaft was there first, sayin' it loud, bein' black and proud, and you have to wonder how many of his literary descendants would have even gotten their foot in the door had Shaft not kicked it right off its hinges.
Here are five of the best black private eyes that crime fiction has produced so far:
1. Toussaint Moore, created by Ed Lacy (pseudonym of Leonard S. Zinberg). Generally considered the first truly credible black eye, Toussaint Marcus Moore (a name with more than a few black nationalist overtones) made his debut in the Edgar Award-winning Room to Swing in 1957. In that book, a background investigation on behalf of a reality-based TV show called You-Detective! (which wouldn't seem out of place in this year's television season) takes Moore from the Big Apple all the way to Bingston, Ohio. In that town located on the Kentucky border -- not really "a mean town for the colored, just a little old-fashioned," as a local kindly puts it -- Moore is called "boy" (and worse) more times in six hours than he has been during the rest of his life. The juxtaposition of a relatively hip, urban black guy with middle-class aspirations and some rather twee affectations (he smokes a pipe and drives a Jag) and the less-than-enlightened rural small-town mindset was a conflict that would echo through much subsequent crime fiction (including John Ball's classic In the Heat of the Night, 1965). There's an open-ended liberalism on display in Room to Swing that dares to look without blinking not just upon racism but also upon homosexuality -- a remarkable thing even now, never mind more than 40 years ago. Yet even as he strives to do the right thing, and also clear himself of a trumped-up murder rap, Moore contemplates chucking the whole detective business for a safe job at the post office. That may not be something that Mike Hammer or any of the other he-men eyes of the 1950s would have considered, but then, Hammer wasn't black, and for Toussaint, a good job with steady pay and relatively discrimination-free, was nothing to sneeze at. In fact, Toussaint does subsequently go to work for the post office, but comes out of retirement in 1964's Moment of Untruth, which is almost as good as Room To Swing.
2. Ezell "Easy" Barnes, created by Richard Hilary (pseudonym of Richard Bonino and Hilary Connors). Providing an important link between Shaft and Mosley's Easy Rawlins, author Hilary composed four entertaining, thoughtful and unjustly forgotten paperback originals featuring Barnes, a tough ex-prizefighter and Newark, New Jersey, cop-turned-private-eye who relaxes by fishing under the Park Avenue Bridge and working in a community garden. That vegetable patch is a nice touch, born from Hilary's interest in community and family -- a theme that is really brought home in Pillow of the Community (1988), wherein Barnes and his best friend, Angel the Sex Change (don't ask), end up acting as surrogate parents to an abandoned baby girl. The careening plot soon has Easy and Angel butting heads with pimps and voodoo practitioners, football players and bookies, thugs and white liberals, and is just a true pleasure to read. The first book in this series, 1987's Snake in the Grasses, actually takes place in 1978, and the second, Pieces of Cream (also published in 1987), takes place several years later. This time-leaping technique has subsequently become something of a trademark in Mosley's own series. In fact, I've always wondered about Mosley's and Hilary's detectives sharing a nickname. Coincidence, or a tip of the hat, on Mosley's part? The final book in Hilary's series, Behind the Fact (1989), was nominated for a Shamus Award.
3. Aaron Gunner, created by Gar Anthony Haywood. Often incorrectly lumped in with the numerous black P.I.s who sprang into being in the wake of Walter Mosley's success, Haywood's South-Central Los Angeles gumshoe actually beat Rawlins to bookshelves by a couple of years. Aaron Gunner may not be an angel, but he's a long way from Tidyman's angry, kiss-my-black-ass dick. Sure, Gunner's angry, but in these complicated times, he finds it difficult to view the world in stark black-and-white terms. Although the novel in which he debuted -- the smart, edgy Fear of the Dark (1988) -- won a Shamus, it's the second entry in this series, Not Long for This World (1990), that really rocks, with its brave, if futile attempt to make sense of a Rodney King-style riot. At one point in the book, Gunner goes so far as to defend a possibly corrupt white cop from the wrath of a black mob. Can't we all just get along, indeed. Like Toussaint Moore, Gunner has doubts about his profession -- he can't even decide if he wants to be a detective or help out his cousin, an electrician; but Haywood's insistence on covering sensitive, often overtly political and racial issues too often ignored by other detective writers makes this fine series well worth checking out. The sixth and latest entry, All the Lucky Ones Are Dead (2000), has Gunner trying to pass up two jobs -- one to guard a repulsively right-wing radio talk-show host, the other to investigate the death of a rap singer -- but is eventually drawn into both cases, with compelling results.
4. Ivan Monk, created by Gary Phillips. If Aaron Gunner introduced the politicized black eye, it's Gary Phillips' Ivan Monk who has really run with the idea. Definitely one of the more interesting members of the new breed, battle-weary, middle-class, 40-ish Los Angeles P.I. Monk has appeared in three ambitious, highly acclaimed and politically charged novels, starting with Violent Spring (1994), with a fourth, Only the Wicked, awaiting publication. But Monk isn't just some lone-wolf P.I. spouting a vague party line. He puts his money where his mouth is, owning and operating a doughnut shop right in South-Central. That doughnut shop shows the depth of Monk's commitment to this diverse community of blacks, whites, Hispanics and Asians, and it's really a master stroke on Phillips' part, allowing Monk to interact with people not only as a detective, but as a businessman and as the guy behind the counter. There are no racial or cultural boundaries here -- everybody likes doughnuts. Hell, the detective himself is dating a Japanese-American judge. The second novel in this series, Perdition, U.S.A. (1995), finds our man Monk in a predicament quite similar to Toussaint Moore's in Room to Swing. Moore, though, only had to put up with a few rednecks who mostly wanted to throw him in jail; in this book, Monk must deal with heavily armed white supremacists, after his investigation into three seemingly unconnected murders in LA leads him to the small town of Perdition, Washington.
5. Ezekial "Easy" Rawlins, created by Walter Mosley. Rawlins has enjoyed more critical and commercial success than any of his competitors, and in many ways, he's a culmination of and a tribute to all those who preceded him. He's got Toussaint Moore's middle-class aspirations, Easy Barnes' sense of close-knit community, Ivan Monk's political conscience and Aaron Gunner's practical, if angry, sense of justice. And, with or without his sociopathic sometimes-sidekick, Mouse, he shares John Shaft's potential for sudden, explosive violence. Rawlins' first appearance, in Devil in a Blue Dress (1990), like Shaft's debut 20 years earlier, was just too loud and powerful to be ignored. In a finely rendered post-World War II Los Angeles, Easy, an unemployed veteran down on his luck and desperate to hang onto his little house, reluctantly agrees to do some private snooping for a local gangster and soon discovers that he has a knack for the work. New York magazine called Devil "a black Chinatown, a cross between Richard Wright and Raymond Chandler." Mosley has since continued this ambitious series, each entry leaping ahead a few years, offering another snapshot of black America in the latter half of the 20th century. The most recent installment is 1997's Gone Fishin', actually a prequel that traces the early adventures of Easy and Mouse, as the two young men set off on a road trip to Pariah, Texas, that soon leads to betrayal, murder and the question of how far friendship will go. Mosley intends to bring his series right up to the present. That's a ride a lot of his fans seem willing to take. In addition to being the best-selling, currently active black eye in fiction, Rawlins may also be the most ambitious. Monk may have a doughnut shop, but by his second adventure, A Red Death (1991), Easy already owns a few apartment buildings, plus a bar and a couple of houses. Mosley's black eye is determined to carve a piece of the American Dream out for himself, but too often circumstances drag him back to the mean streets. No wonder he keeps his assets well hidden, and his head down. Even as the series progresses, and we get closer to these so-called enlightened days and our "liberated ways," it seems it's never quite the right time to appear too "uppity."
Of course, these five African-American sleuths are not the only ones working hard these days. Once Shaft kicked out the blocks, more and more detectives jumped the color barrier. Here are a few others worth taking note of:
The first to follow in Shaft's wake was probably Jackson F. Burke's Sam Moses Kelly, a balding, pudgy, streetwise house dick for the Hotel Castlereagh, on New York City's Upper West Side. Kelly doesn't particularly like hurting folks, so he carries a small Astra .25 Colt Cub. But he will certainly use it if he must -- his preferred targets being kneecaps and shoulders. A quiet man, generally, Kelly enjoys good cigars, classical music, the occasional Jack Daniel's and the company of his significant other, Madame Bobby, whose occupation is just about what you think it might be. However, he can be fiercely protective of his turf and his friends, as in his debut, 1974's Location Shot, in which one of Kelly's best buddies, a writer of children's books and a resident of the Castlereagh, is found murdered. Location Shot was followed by Death Trick (1975) and Kelly Among the Nightingales (1979).
For those who want a P.I. with good taste, you can hardly do better than Carver Bascombe, originally created by Kenn Davis and John Stanley in The Dark Side (1976), but continued for the next seven books by Davis alone, the series concluding with 1990's Blood of Poets. Bascombe's a young Vietnam vet with a military police background, who's now an ambitious, art-loving private eye and part-time student working his way through law school in San Francisco. Bascombe's passion comes in handy, because his cases invariably involve the arts somehow, be it opera, drama, literature, art photography, ballet, painting or poetry. The first few novels in this series were uneven, but by the fourth one, the Shamus-nominated Melting Point (1986), Davis had really hit his stride, with Bascombe sweating out a long, hot summer waiting to hear if he's passed the bar, while at the same time he hunts down a missing sculptor.
Speaking of art, James Sallis' ambitious, literate series featuring Lew Griffin certainly delivers. Griffin is a New Orleans professor, poet, novelist, sometime-drunk and occasional private eye, a man prone to brooding and introspection, whose well-received, stylish appearances have brought author Sallis numerous favorable comparisons to Mosley and Chester Himes. Griffin's obsession with missing children, and his quest to find them, permeates the series, but the real treat here is the writing itself. Deemed too artsy-fartsy by some, these books nonetheless pack a powerful, if subtle wallop, compelling and thoughtful. Griffin's debut, in The Long-Legged Fly (1992), is particularly recommended, a literary tour de force that follows the detective through four missing-person cases, spread over 26 years, and reveals how each has left its mark on him. Griffin has since appeared in four more thought-provoking, defiantly literate adventures, the latest being Bluebottle (1999).
Readers who prefer their private eyes a little less cerebral should check out Conall Ryan's kick-ass Black Gravity (1985), a one-off featuring a character named Knightsbridge (yes, one name only -- just like you-know-who). A black Vietnam veteran, Knightsbridge is now a hard-nosed private investigator in Boston, whose offices are located in a 42-foot motorboat moored on the Charles River (there's even a little poke at local hero Spenser). The novel finds Knightsbridge on the trail of a man who may or may not have stolen a valuable urn -- a quest that takes the detective and his clunky old Checker Cab all the way from Beantown to Sutter Springs Gap, a Wyoming mining burg that bears more than a passing resemblance to Poisonville, the setting for Dashiell Hammett's Red Harvest.
Finally, if Knightsbridge's macho head-butting gets to be a bit much, there's always Valerie Wilson Wesley's tough, down-to-earth Tamara Hayle. A Newark, New Jersey, private eye, ex-cop and single mom, Hayle struggles to keep food on the table for herself and her teenage son. Wesley's novels provide an entertaining mixture of humor, colorful characters and true grit. Starting with When Death Comes Stealing (1994), which was nominated for a Shamus in the Best First P.I. Novel category, and continuing right up to The Devil Riding (2000), this series shows an unapologetic blend of domestic drama and hard-edged crime that pushes the boundaries and manages to give the genre a tweak or two. In Where Evil Sleeps (1996), for instance, Wesley takes the standard "fish out of water" plot device and gives it a good yank. She sends Hayle not to some redneck bastion, but rather to sunny Jamaica, where it's clear that it takes more than skin color to make one feel at home. Thanks to a grateful client, Hayle is on a long-deserved and rare vacation, and has nothing but fun in the sun on her mind. But things soon take a decidedly bad turn. Her purse is stolen, along with all her money, her passport and her other ID, and an outburst of violence in a Kingston bar leaves the husband of a newfound friend dead and Hayle face-to-face with everything she's trying to escape from. Even worse, she's a prime suspect in the crime. Nobody's going to confuse this book with the hard-boiled, mean-street fiction involving Shaft or Knightsbridge, but there's an underlying edge to Wesley's series that bodes well for its longevity.
Of course, nothing's a sure bet in publishing, and nothing lasts forever. Consider: Even as the new Shaft flick rakes in box-office cash worldwide, Ernest Tidyman's books about the sexy Harlem detective are inexplicably out of print, as are many of the other titles I've mentioned. But with a little luck and lots of perseverance, you should be able to find most of the novels listed above. If you have any interest in detective fiction at all -- not just in where it's been, but where it's going -- it's worth tracking them down.
While individual books and even whole series come and go, it seems unlikely at this point that the figure of the black private detective will fade into obscurity. The novelty may long ago have worn off, but it's been replaced by something even better: Today, some of the finest storytelling and freshest perspectives in crime fiction can be found in titles featuring black private eyes. Fans now wait eagerly for the sale of new books by Mosley, Haywood, Phillips, Wesley and Sallis, and even as you read this, new writers from other walks of life and all segments of society are anxious to take on the genre on their own terms, and use it to tell their stories in their own way.
And that's good news not just for the genre, but for readers. Can you dig it? | July 2000
Kevin Burton Smith is a contributing editor of January Magazine. He's also a columnist for Blue Murder Magazine and editor of The Thrilling Detective Web Site, which is devoted to the appreciation of fictional private eyes -- hard-boiled and otherwise -- in literature, film, television and other media. He lives in Montreal, and is pretty, um, flié for a white guy.