Filmmaker and sometime mystery writer Nelson George (The Plot Against Hip Hop and Night Work) wrote a commentary in the February 15, 2013, New York Times, “Still Too Good, Too Bad or Invisible.” The piece focused on the portrayal of black leading men in recent movies, including Quentin Tarantino’s lauded and lambasted Django Unchained, for which he won the Oscar for best screenplay. As the film has been popular in black movie houses, George noted there are many examples of disconnect between the critiques of the black intelligencia and what captures the imaginations of the black masses.
When I was a teenager growing up in South Central Los Angeles in the ’70s, there was a type of paperback novel you couldn’t find at B. Dalton or Martindale’s. Instead, you found these books on the spinner rack in drugstores and bus station newsstands, and even in grocery stores. They had titles like Eldorado Red, Trick Baby, and Death for Hire. This was crime fiction with black protagonists and antiheroes published by the L.A.-based, white-owned Holloway House whose specialty, in their words, was being “the world’s largest publisher of black experience paperbacks.”
It was not the black experience my librarian mother had introduced me to in the pages of Langston Hughes and Anne Perry, but it did reflect an undercurrent arising out of the tumult of the Black Power and Civil Rights era. Not to say that the aforementioned Eldorado Red—about heisters who take down a numbers house, written by former pimp and ongoing heroin addict Donald Goines—was full of role models to be emulated. But the energy that came out of those movements, the desire to take it to the man, such sentiment fueled in part the works of Goines and his Holloway House cohorts Roland Jefferson (The School on 103rd Street), Robert Beck, and Joe Nazel.
While in prison, Goines had been inspired to use the elements of his criminal life—as Chester Himes, creator of the Coffin Ed Johnson and Gravedigger Jones series of mystery novels before him—once he’d read Beck (aka Cavanaugh, aka Iceberg Slim). In Pimp, a fictionalized autobiography of his life, Beck told in cold, harrowing detail how to mesmerize a woman to put her out on the stroll, and how to beat her if she withheld your money. Nazel wrote various types of books for Holloway House, from a bio of crusading journalist Ida B. Wells, to horror (The Black Exorcist), to his Iceman series. The latter character being one Henry Highland West, a cat who was a cross between Iceberg and the Punisher. He ran a casino and legal brothel outside of Vegas called the Oasis and battled the mafia.
My friend, the writer Emory Holmes II, also a former Holloway House editor, had this to say in his affectionate obit in the L.A. Times when Nazel, a Vietnam vet, died too early several years ago at age 62. “Joseph could write a novel—some of them glorious, some of them god-awful, some under his own name, some under one of his dozen or so pseudonyms—in six weeks flat. And he did it while he was working full time as an (underpaid) editor, penning letters and writing news stories.”
Mainstream publishers also got in on the action as the ranks of crime and mystery characters expanded racially and gender-wise. White novelist and screenwriter Earnest Tidyman created the indomitable Times Square private eye John Shaft in a series of seven novels, including Shaft’s Carnival of Killers. Richard Abraham Spade, Superspade, was the Vietnam vet/troubleshooter star of a series of paperback originals, written by pseudonymous B.B. Johnson, with titles like Bad Day for a Black Brother and Mother of the Year. If memory serves, Superspade’s super power was that he gave off a hyper pheromone that made a woman go weak in the knees for him. No, really.
Angela Harpe in a series of Dark Angel books by James D. Lawrence was a female Shaft mixed with filmdom’s Cleopatra Jones. And the late Edgar-nominated Marc Olden wrote a series of action-adventure novels featuring Robert Sand, the Black Samurai. “He felt the warm blood under his bare feet as he stepped over the bodies and moved down the hallway. Other raiders would be here soon. But it didn’t matter. He was a Samurai, he would die fighting as a Samurai.”
There’s also the more recent advent of what’s been called Ghetto Lit. This has been an admittedly narrow segment of crime fiction, coming out of gangsta rap and usually about men and women blinging up, being players. For good and for ill, there’s been a plethora of books, also called Street Lit or Urban Fiction, that—while writers such as Terry McMillan pilloried them—fostered a readership. Titles such as Hood Rat, True to the Game, and Picture Me Rollin,’ have been devoured by a generation weaned on MTV Cribs and songs like “When Thugz Cry.”
When Paul Stewart, music impresario and head of Over the Edge Books and I got to talking about me doing something for his line—with both of us being fans of the aforementioned—well then, my task was clear. I wanted to pay homage, but also be more self-reflective in the material. Influenced, too, by iconic 1930s pulp hero Doc Savage, I came up with Luke Warfield, head of the philanthropic Essex Foundation headquartered out of L.A, a rich man with a shadowy past who applies his brawn, brains, and fortune, to righting wrongs, seeking an elusive redemption for his past sins. In his first e-book novella, The Essex Man:10 Seconds to Death, there’s a dastardly villain in the Ayn Rand mode, gadgets, and gorgeous women, who show in the course of the story they are not mere eye candy.
Can’t wait to write the second one…dig it.
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In addition to the The Essex Man, Gary Phillips’s latest work includes a short story in The Heroin Chronicles and he’s writing the Indiegogo webseries project, Midnight Mover.