Friday, February 04, 2011

Book Review: Room to Swing

Ed Lacy
Awards: Edgar
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ –

This novel just goes to show that you can’t judge a book by its ridiculous cover – or its teensy size.

It proves that just because a book is short (a tidy 128 pages) and just because it went out of print and had to be resurrected by a tiny publisher who obviously scanned in the original text and then didn’t edit it afterwards so that there are typos, skipped sentences, and "& pound; s" scattered throughout the text, and whose extensive cover design consisted of reprinting a tiny picture of the original 1957 cover artwork (shown here) surrounded by an enormous plain black border, and who jammed the text so close to the tops of the pages that the headers and page numbers are practically cut off, doesn’t mean it can’t be action-packed and establish great characters.

The plot is tried-and-true mystery fare: the main character, Toussaint Moore, is a New York detective hired to track a man who quickly winds up being murdered. Moore is the first to find the body and is of course mistakenly accused of the crime; he then has to solve the murder in order to prove his own innocence.

I loved Moore’s style. He doesn’t take any guff and doesn’t go out of his way to make people feel comfortable. He is abrupt, snappy, and slangy, like Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe at his best. But Moore is also human and you see his fears.

Lacy’s writing is fast-paced, clear-headed, and straightforward – which is the only way the book can be this complex and this short and still work. I liked that he starts by dropping you right smack in the middle of the story, so you have to put the background together for yourself as he gives it to you. And what I liked even more was that you got the clues and solved the mystery at the same time Moore does. You might think that would lead to less suspense, but it actually was more exciting.

What makes this novel unique for 1957 is that Moore is black. (He is, in fact, described on the back of my copy of the book and in several reviews as “the first credible black detective” in popular mystery fiction.)

For a black detective in the ‘50s, racism is never far away. Especially when most of the people he has to deal with in the story are white, including the people who hired him, the police who are chasing him, and the man he was trailing and is accused of murdering. This is a constant additional tension, to say the least, that a white detective would not have had to cope with.

In the course of solving the crime, Moore ends up traveling from New York to Bingston, Ohio, a small town just north of the Kentucky border. The contrast is educational for him. Bingston is plainly, overtly racist; Moore can only make phone calls from certain gas stations, can't eat at the cafeteria or stay at the hotel, and is constantly called “boy” and treated with hostility. New York is certainly better than Bingston; black people have a wider choice of professions, have at least the legal right to eat and lodge anywhere they want, and night clubs often have both black and white patrons. (It even has out-of-the-closet Lesbians (capitalized), whom Moore is totally okay with.)

But even with the most “liberal-minded” white New Yorkers, Moore constantly walks a tightrope of behavior, judging when to put up with insensitive remarks or outright insults and when to defend himself. And he still has to fight the pressure, even from his girlfriend and his own pesky conscience, to give up his risky detective agency venture and run to a safe civil service job.

No comments:

Post a Comment

HTML Tag Instructions

Bold: To make text bold, tag it as follows:

<b>text you want to appear in bold</b>

Italic: To italicize text, tag it as follows:

<i>text you want to appear in italic</i>

Links: To add clickable links, like say to a Wikipedia article on baseball, tag it as follows:

<a href="">text you want to link from</a>

Related Posts with Thumbnails