To be sure, “whiteness” dominates more than just the L.A. skyline: it’s rare to see characters of color in the classic mysteries of Chandler, Cain and company, let alone any Golden Age L.A. crime writers themselves who weren’t White guys (Chester Himes and Dorothy B. Hughes are the well-known exceptions). Restoring the bleached vision of mid-century L.A. and its environs to a //colorized// reality has been the work of more recent crime writers, chief among them, Walter Mosley in the earliest novels of his Easy Rawlins series.
Gary Phillips, a native of South Central L.A., made his debut in 1994 with “Violent Spring,” a crime novel about contemporary history: the 1992 L.A. uprising, sparked by the arrest and beating of Rodney King. That novel — now a crime classic — introduced Ivan Monk, a Black L.A. private eye who starred in three more novels. Phillips has gone on to other crime novels, comics, historical novels about Black figures such as Arctic explorer Matthew Henson, and superhero fantasy tales. His latest crime novel, “One-Shot Harry” is his 22nd book, and it returns Phillips to his personal and literary origins. “Harry” is an edgy time travel ride back to L.A. in the spring of 1963, in the waning days of Golden Age L.A., when the Hollywood sign is splintering in the sun and racial tensions are escalating in advance of Martin Luther King’s upcoming Freedom Rally at Wrigley Field.
Phillips has conjured up the best of all possible guides to this watershed moment: Harry Ingram is a Black freelance news photographer who roams all over L.A. with his Speed Graphic camera strapped around his neck. His photos appear in Jet and Black-owned newspapers like The Los Angeles Sentinel and The California Eagle. (Phillips’s hero is modeled on Harry Adams, a prominent Black photographer of the time who was nicknamed “One-Shot Harry.”) He lives in a little apartment over a grocery store in South Central L.A. and, to keep himself fueled with Eastside Old Tap and maintain his wheezing Plymouth Belvedere, Harry also works as a process server. These two jobs give Harry an entree into neighborhoods and events that might otherwise be off-limits to him because of his race.
That’s not to say, of course, that Harry moves through the city without hassle. Here’s a pointed scene where Harry is out for a walk when he spies a Black repairman being hassled by a White policeman. His camera ever at the ready, Harry starts snapping pictures.
“Who the hell are you?” demanded the cop.
“A member of the press.” Ingram couldn’t help but hear the cop’s drawl. Chief William Parker actively recruited White officers from the Jim Crow South, running ads in various regional newspapers down there. The better to keep the natives in line, he reflected.
“Yeah, you look just like Edward R. Murrow,” the cop huffed.
That tense encounter ends with the cop pulling a trick that could have had deadly consequences; but, Harry is hip to it and saves both himself and the handyman from a bullet. The “mean streets” of Harry’s L.A. are crisscrossed with tripwires that Philip Marlowe could just ignore.
The mystery here focuses on an old Army buddy of Harry’s, a White jazz trumpeter named Ben Kinslow who’s suddenly reappeared in town, working in some murky capacity for a wealthy White businessman. Shortly after the two friends’ chance reunion, Ben’s Mercury crashes through a guardrail on Mulholland Drive and he’s killed. Harry, who keeps a police scanner in his apartment, rushes to the scene to photograph it. The developed “snaps” show something fishy with the brake line. “Man, you getting all Johnny Dollar?” asks an acquaintance when Harry starts investigating the accident. Soon enough, Harry finds himself facing off with hired killers working for a white supremacist group who want the speedometer of racial progress pushed way back down.
“One-Shot Harry” is fast-paced, tough, wry and smart, but what makes this novel a singular sensation is the diverse cityscape of mid-century L.A. that Phillips summons up. More than simply scattering cosmetic references to African American newspapers or notables like Dorothy Dandridge, and (eventual) Mayor Tom Bradley, Phillips takes readers deep into another world and time: its jokes, home furnishings, baloney-meatloaf-and-hot-dog-heavy meals; its hateful slurs, “invisible” racial boundaries and cautiously hopeful possibilities.
Detectives — be they professionals or amateurs like Harry — are always lone rangers. Here, though, Harry’s solitary fight for justice is born out of a racist social reality, rather than just his own aloof temperament. With luck, Phillips plans to give his terrific new detective more than “one shot” to right some wrongs, wander into some good diners and jazz clubs, and capture more of the varied faces and stories of old L.A.
Maureen Corrigan is the book critic for the NPR program, Fresh Air, and teaches literature at Georgetown University.
Soho Crime. 288 pp. $26.95
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