The Edgar Awards Revisited: Room to Swing by Ed Lacy (Best Novel; 1958)
We're revisiting every Edgar Award winner for Best Novel, and up next is 1958's winner Room to Swing by Ed Lacy. Scott Adlerberg reviews.
In 1958, the nominees for the Mystery Writers of America Edgar Award were Arthur Upfield’s The Bushman Who Came Back, Bill Ballinger’s The Longest Second, Marjorie Carleton’s The Night of the Good Children, and Ed Lacy’s Room to Swing. Of these four books, the best-known today among mystery aficionados is Upfield’s, largely because it’s part of his Napoleon Bonaparte series, the Australian novels featuring the half-caste Aborigine who is a detective inspector with the Queensland Police Force. I’ve read a couple of the Upfield novels, but when I accepted this assignment to write about the 1958 Edgar winner, I had never heard of the other two runners-up. The Longest Second is an amnesia-themed thriller, and The Night of the Good Children is a small-town set suspense novel involving a man who kidnaps a sixteen-year girl and the two-year-old she is babysitting. Ed Lacy’s novel, the award recipient, was also new to me, but when I googled the title for preliminary research, I became intrigued. Room to Swing, I realized, has historical significance. Ed Lacy was white, and as a couple of websites say, he “is credited with creating the first truly credible African-American private eye in fiction,” Toussaint Marcus Moore.
Lacy’s real name was Leonard Zinberg. He was born in New York City in 1911. Before adopting the Lacy pen name, he published several novels, boxing-themed and mainstream, as well as churning out hundreds of short stories and articles for magazines and newspapers. His first book under the Lacy pseudonym came out in 1951, and he had put out eight crime novels, standalones in the hardboiled vein, by the time Room to Swing appeared.
Touissant Moore, black American PI, may have been a fresh character in fiction, but in fact he was not the author’s first African-American protagonist. His debut novel from 1940, Walk Loud, Talk Loud, focuses on a black boxer and deals with race relations. No less a critic than Ralph Ellison reviewed the book for New Masses, and he lauded Zinberg for “indicating how far a writer, whose approach to Negro life is uncolored by condescension, stereotyped ideas, and other faults growing out of race prejudice, is able to go with a Marxist understanding of the economic basis of Negro personality.”
The reference to a “Marxist” sensibility is telling; Zinberg was the product of a liberal, Jewish, New York upbringing and his engagement with racial matters dated back to his youth. When he was a teenager, his family lived near Harlem, and as early as July 1935, he wrote a short story called “Lynch Him”, a sign of his social and political preoccupations. In the 1940s, Zinberg married an African-American woman named Esther, and the two remained together, living mainly in Harlem, until his death in 1968. The very adoption of the Ed Lacy pen name may have been related to his political activities; as Ed Lynsky states in his Mystery File piece about Zinberg:
There was also a more sinister reason thought to lie behind the creation of Ed Lacy. Zinberg’s attraction to radical politics included his interest in the Communist Party before World War Two…Zinberg actively supported Henry Wallace’s progressive Party in the 1948 Presidential election against Truman. He also attended social functions held by the editors of the Communist journal, Masses and Mainstream, during the 1950s and had many left-wing friends. His wife once worked at the radical Yiddish newspaper Freiheit. Ed Lacy became the crime writer. Len Zinberg was the political liberal. The two personas were kept separate even in Lacy’s dustjacket biographies. This was the McCarthy and Cold War age of blacklisted writers.
Still, it’s not as if the author had two actual personalities. In Room to Swing, he puts both sides of himself into the narrative, layering his private eye tale with social commentary and class analysis. Of course, going back to Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, the PI novel has served as an effective vehicle for sociological critique. But the Continental Op and Philip Marlowe, like all the other private eyes up to this point, can move without restrictions through different milieus because they’re white. Lacy’s Toussaint Moore doesn’t have this luxury. To varying degrees, depending on where he is – New York City or Ohio, the two places the book is set – and who he’s with – white people, black people, artsy urban types or outright racists – he is a societal outsider. Even Harlem Renaissance author Rudolph Fisher, in his 1938 novel, The Conjure Man Dies, makes his black investigator a New York City police officer, so something of a social insider. Fisher’s cop, Perry Dart, acts with the state’s sanction, though the state, needless to say, is run by whites. Chester Himes too, in his Harlem Detective series, followed this model; Gravedigger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson are policemen, not private eyes, and they do most of their work in a part of the city where they can move through different social strata with a sense of authority. What Lacy does in Room to Swing is consider a question Walter Mosely would more fully explore years later in his Easy Rawlins books. Lacy asks whether a black man (in the late fifties) can go everywhere he needs to, with the freedom his job requires, in order to conduct the investigation necessary to crack a case. Touie Moore lives in Harlem, where he feels comfortable, but if he merely walks around downtown Brooklyn after work hours, he gets looks from the police:
A young cop came by, swinging his club…He glanced at me casually, and I knew what he was thinking – what’s this Negro hanging around here for? Only he wasn’t thinking the word Negro. If I’d been roughly dressed, he probably would have asked me.
As he mentions, Moore does dress well, and he happens to be college-educated. He’s a twice-decorated war veteran, and while in the military, he reached the rank of Captain. It’s obvious he’s hard-working and intelligent. But since he is black, the employment options facing him are limited. Besides his private eye gig, which entails getting “colored cases”, he works sometimes as a department store detective. He catches shoplifters or goes to the apartments of poor black folk to repossess items they bought on credit. As if that is not demeaning enough, Moore lives in a way a Lew Archer or Travis McGee would never imagine living: he shares “an old-fashioned railroad flat” with two other guys. His room doubles as his office, a sign in his window saying that he is a licensed private investigator. Maybe his girlfriend has a point when she tells him that he should quit his detective work and take the post office job he’s been offered since he passed the civil service exam. For a black man, such a job, with its steady paycheck and good benefits, offers a path to a middle-class life. Moore isn’t thrilled by the prospect, but he knows that his girlfriend (who works as a long-lines phone operator) has a point.
The plot of Room to Swing is nothing spectacular, but it holds your interest. And its television-related premise has a surprising resonance today. In New York City, a publicity woman for a reality-based show called You – Detective! asks Toussaint Moore to follow a man who will be the focus of a coming episode. This man, Robert Thomas, is wanted by the Ohio police “for raping and assaulting a poor sixteen-year-old kid.” Thomas, under an alias, is now living and working in New York City, and for a week or two, Moore is to keep tabs on him. Moore simply has to check that Thomas is at his job every day and does not move. When Thomas’s case is televised, the show will give viewers certain details about him and the crime he committed. Any person who later contacts the police with information leading to Thomas’s arrest will get a reward. As the publicist describes it, the show “is a combination adventure and giveaway show.”
Moore takes the job, but things go bad for him fast. Somebody kills Thomas and sets the situation up so that it appears Moore did it. To make matters worse, while he is standing over the body, a cop turns up – a white, armed cop – and during their sudden meeting, nothing the cop says or does inspires Moore with confidence:
He was staring at me, waiting for me to say something. I didn’t bother making words. It boiled down to a white cop and black me, and he had the ‘difference’ in his hand. I’d look silly trying to explain…all I could do was stand very still.
In that split second something my old man used to say rushed through my mind. “A Negro’s life is dirt cheap because he hasn’t any rights a white man must respect. That’s the law, the Dred Scott Decision, son. Always remember that.”
I was remembering; any move on my part and I’d be dead.
“Why don’t you robbing bastards stay up in Harlem where you belong instead of coming down here to rob and mug people?” His voice was shrill, his white face working with rage as he stepped toward me.
Within striking distance, he raised his gun to whip my head.
Quicker than the cop, Moore manages to grab and punch him, knocking him out. But the moment he does that, he knows he has sealed his doom. He can’t stay in New York. He thinks the key to the murder may lie in the Ohio town where Thomas is wanted, so he flees New York for that town, to poke around there. It’s a majority white place with a small black neighborhood, and though it is not the South per se, Moore notes how often since he’s left New York, he has been called “boy.” His experience as an urban black man rooting through a small-minded, country town brings to mind In the Heat of the Night and John Ball’s detective, Virgil Tibbs, and one has to believe Ball read Lacy’s novel before he wrote his own.
Eventually, Moore discovers the reasons behind Moore’s murder. He returns to New York since the culprit is there. With help from a white private eye associate, he wraps up the case and gets himself squared away with the police, but the novel ends with him choosing to leave the detective business. Being an investigator has not made him feel as if he is helping to right wrongs or aid in the cause of justice.
Let somebody else be waiting to collar a babe shoplifting because she hasn’t the money to buy the clothes she needs. I don’t ever want to dun an old woman into paying up on some goddamn sink on which she was screwed from the word go. Most of all I’m sick of being around people busy stepping on each other’s backs…
What his white fictional PI brethren would scorn, Toussaint now covets – the calm and security of a steady nine-to-five. Trouble will not be his business. I can’t remember reading another book that ends with a character excited about a prospective job at the US Post Office, but that’s how Room to Swing concludes. Not coming from what today we’d call a position of privilege, Moore opts to be a man who will keep his head down. That may be mundane and unglamorous, but it is, as he sees it, realistic. And it serves as a last bit of racial commentary from the novel’s author, who clearly feels that his main character should be more in life than a letter carrier. Toussaint Moore would return to do detective work in another book, Moment of Untruth (1964), but in Room to Swing at least, Ed Lacy leaves Moore in precisely the position occupied by millions of black people at the time – taking the best he can get from what the white world will give him.
Notes from the 1958 Edgar Awards:
- Stanley Ellin once again won the Edgar Award for Best Short Story for “The Blessington Method” from Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine (June, 1956).
- Vincent Starrett, known today for his Sherlock Holmes pastiches, won the Grand Master Award.
- From the television series Alcoa Hour, the episode titled “Mechanical Manhunt” won the Edgar for Best TV Episode.
- Twelve Angry Men was awarded Best Motion Picture.
- Both Harper and Dell publishers received the Book Jacket Award for their general excellence in design.
- The Raven Award was presented to Miss Dorothy Kilgallen with the comment ‘Reader of the Year.’ (Dorothy’s Wikipedia page is worth a read.)
- Best First Novel was awarded to William Rawle Weeks for Knock and Wait a While.
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Thanks again for joining us as we work our way through this list. Tune in next week when we discuss 1959’s The Eighth Circle by Stanley Ellin! Find it Friday.
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