Black and white and dead all over

In our roundup of the best new mysteries, black America's answer to Ross Macdonald, a Danish boy fights the Nazis, and the great Ross Thomas, back in print at last.

Published March 17, 2003 9:00PM (EST)

"Thin Walls: A Smokey Dalton Novel"
By Kris Nelscott
387 pages
St. Martin's Minotaur

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When Kris Nelscott's first novel, "A Dangerous Road," came out three years ago, the mystery writer Loren D. Estleman called her "a Ross Macdonald for the black experience in America." That's a very large claim. For a lot of people, and I'm one of them, Macdonald's Lew Archer novels are the pinnacle of American detective fiction. Deliberate and humorless, but with the most gentlemanly of all detectives, Macdonald's novels are about families whose respectability and security are threatened by the past they've tried to bury. A typical Macdonald bypasses thrills and suspense in favor of Lew Archer's bone-deep sadness for the people he encounters, for his attempt to hold on to his constantly embattled decency.

Now, with "Thin Walls," the third book in Nelscott's Smokey Dalton series, Estleman's claim feels more than ever on its way to being justified. Nelscott's detective, Smokey Dalton, doesn't have the luxury of the weariness that hovers over Lew Archer. In many of Archer's cases, it's too late for him to salvage the lives of his clients. The family problems Smokey encounters are largely his own. Trying to raise Jimmy, his adopted 10-year-old, won't allow Smokey even the pretense of distance that Archer, a man who cares too much, forces on himself. It's impossible for Smokey, or for us, to separate what becomes of Jimmy from having any hope for the future. Smokey isn't making the parental mistake of living through his adopted boy. Trying to make sure that Jimmy has a life is, he realizes, what he has power to influence, and that gives his stern patience the drama of a life-and-death struggle.

Books are not good or bad because of the importance (or frivolity) of their subject. In fact, the more ambitious they are, the easier it is for their faults to be held against them. But ambition has to count for something. In the three Smokey Dalton novels ("Smoke-Filled Rooms" comes between "A Dangerous Road" and "Thin Walls") Nelscott is doing nothing less than writing about the transition from the civil rights era to the period of black power. The first book begins with Smokey as a Memphis P.I. in the weeks before Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination. It ends with Smokey and Jimmy, now using assumed names, escaping to Chicago just in time for the chaos of the 1968 Democratic Convention.

In "Thin Walls," it's Christmastime of that awful year, after the assassinations, the convention and the election of Richard Nixon. The plot follows Smokey investigating the murder of a black dentist, a death the cops have dismissed as a mugging. What Smokey finds is linked to the brutality of Mayor Richard Daley's police department, and to the ingrained racism of a city whose segregation defeated even Dr. King when he tried to break it.

Set at a time when the gains made by the civil rights movement felt as if they had been cruel hoaxes, Nelscott's novels are deeply conservative books, in the true sense of that word. The irony is that what Smokey wants to preserve are advances barely a few years old, though, advances that are conservative in the sense that they represent America choosing to live up to its stated values of equality. But a gulf separates the March on Washington, the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act and 1968. So Smokey is ostracized, both by the racist whites who see any black in favor of equality as a dangerous agitator, and by members of the black power movement he distrusts, who, especially in light of King's assassination, see his refusal of revolutionary rhetoric as kowtowing to the white man.

Smokey is a dedicated integrationist, rejecting segregation no matter who's arguing for it or why. His on-again, off-again affair with a wealthy white woman (whose own story Nelscott uses to hint at the rise of feminism), and the easy friendship he forms here with an older Jewish lady are also Nelscott's rejection of the narrowness of race consciousness that still infects our discussions of these issues. (Next to Nelscott's novels, the macho posturing of Walter Mosley makes clear the large chip he carries on his shoulder, and his use of the genre as revenge fantasy.)

The mystery in "Thin Walls" is compelling, tense and cleanly written, while avoiding the macho clichés hardboiled detective fiction falls into so easily. But the drama is elsewhere, in the clash between Smokey's reasonable, ordinary goals -- to raise his son as a good man and provide him with a decent life -- and the looming dread familiar to anyone who was alive in 1968. If I've slighted Nelscott as a mystery novelist, it's because literary critics do not usually credit genre writers (when they notice them at all) for anything beyond doing their job efficiently. Somebody needs to say that Kris Nelscott is engaged in an ongoing fictional study of a thorny era in American political and racial history. If that's not enough to get "serious" critics and readers to pay attention to her, it's their loss.

"Soul Circus"
By George P. Pelecanos
341 pages
Little, Brown

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Maybe it's because he's been at it for so long that George P. Pelecanos' detective Derek Strange has amassed such a great music collection. But it's nice to fantasize that Strange has discovered some amazing record store where any disc of '70s soul or any western movie soundtrack is there for the asking. (If Strange knows where I can find a copy of Wilbert Harrison's 1969 comeback album, I'm all ears.) His choices of music suggest the dance party going on in Derek Strange's head -- "Ennio Morricone, meet Harold Melvin. Elmer Bernstein, meet the Spinners." The music defines Strange: the quiet, steadfast tenderness of the great dramatic soul ballads, and the alternately stark and bombastic themes of the lone righteous man staring down his enemies.

Strange can separate those western fantasies from his work on the streets of Washington, D.C., unlike his white partner Terry Quinn (an ex-cop like Strange). When Terry quotes Ernest Borgnine's famous line from "The Wild Bunch" ("When you side with a man, you stay with him. And if you can't do that, you're like some animal") you know that, beneath the irony, he's serious. And when he quotes the line William Holden speaks before leading his men into a suicidal showdown ("Let's go") there's no irony at all. Despite Strange's imprecations to Terry about letting go of the anger he feels at the resentment he stirs up on the street, you sense that Terry is beyond learning.

"Soul Circus" (great title!) is the third of Pelecanos' novels about the uneasy partnership between the African-American Strange and the Irish-American Quinn -- it's also the best and the bleakest. Pelecanos shares a kinship with Kris Nelscott. His books might be described as accounts of how you carry on after the worst future that Smokey Dalton can imagine has come to pass. "Soul Circus" finds Strange's personal life settled down. He's married his longtime lady friend Janine, and happily taken on the role of father to her teenage son, Lionel. The horrors that surround Strange on the job serve to make that life more precious and fragile.

The split in Strange's life between the domestic and the violent is emphasized here by two of the plotlines, neither of which allows Strange to pretend his hands are clean. And also by a new character, Ulysses Foreman, who might be Strange's Bizarro World opposite. An ex-cop like Strange and Quinn, Foreman has found satisfaction in becoming a gun runner, hiring young women (preferably junkies) with no rap sheet to cross the river into Virginia and make use of the state's instant background check on gun purchases. Foreman sells the goods his couriers bring back, thus handily evading the D.C. handgun ban.

It's that kind of outraged muckraking that makes you feel "Soul Circus" is, if not telling you something you didn't know, confirming what you'd suspected. This may be the most violent of Pelecanos' books, and if the violence sometimes flirts with pulp grimness, it also sticks; it's never a kick. Along with the increased level of violence is a sure-footed black humor. Pelecanos doesn't work up much sympathy for the young men living out their gangsta fantasies -- they're beyond redemption. But he can make the narrowness and thuggishness of their actions horribly funny. In one scene, two sets of young men about to kill each other in some idiotic street squabble over turf and "respeck" sit in their respective cars listening to Missy Elliott declaim that she don't want no one-minute man and wonder what she's complaining about. Pelecanos' dialogue reads like some collaboration between the pitch-perfect realism of Richard Price and the ear for skewed, comic speech that is one of Elmore Leonard's gifts. It's terse and precise with rhythms that catch you on the rebound.

Like Kris Nelscott, Pelecanos has a liberal sensibility with a conservative component. Derek Strange believes that strong male role models will make a difference to the young men who could go either way. While some of the ways Strange goes about that -- coaching a junior football team, for instance -- may seem to come from a quainter time, they also stand for a refusal to believe that the young kids he meets are unreachable. And Pelecanos' outraged asides on the politicians who oppose gun laws while decrying rap and Hollywood as the bane of society let you know he's aware of the bigger causes of the problems.

If Pelecanos' view is grim, it isn't hopeless. Alongside the violence of the communities he writes about are the portraits of people trying to live their lives as they always have -- in diners and bars and churches. Yes, George Pelecanos is writing the sharpest and smartest urban thrillers around. He's also holding up the tradition of novelist as social reporter, with none of the preaching that might entail, and all the craft and toughened compassion you could want.

"Hornet Flight"
By Ken Follett
420 pages

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Every Ken Follett book appears on the bestseller list without fail and maybe that's why, though I enjoyed "Eye of the Needle," I ignored him for so long. I just assumed he was turning out the bloated crowd-pleasers that tend to define the output of bestselling authors. But my love for World War II espionage tales made me try Follett's last novel, "Jackdaws," the story of a group of female agents attempting to sabotage a Nazi communications exchange in occupied France, and I had a terrific time with its slick mixture of action and romance melodrama.

Follett sticks to WWII in his latest book, "Hornet Flight," and the results are almost as much fun. (The inclusion of a few torture scenes that violate the adventure-story tone are the book's biggest problem.) Set in 1941, when it seemed as if the Germans might invade Britain and end the war before the Americans could get involved, "Hornet Flight" takes place on an island off the coast of Nazi-occupied Denmark. Its hero is the sort of bright 18-year-old who, because he's forthright and has a rebellious streak, is just bound to get himself in trouble with the occupying Germans. For Harald Olufsen, it's a matter of pride to stand up to the local bullies who toady to the Nazis, and soon he's hiding out from them in fear for his life. He has stumbled, however, on a secret installation that may explain the Nazis' success in shooting down RAF bombers. It's part of the pleasurable contrivance of Follett's plot that Harald happens to be hiding out in a place where he has access to both the girl he loves and an old Hornet Moth plane that could bring his secret knowledge to the attention of the Brits.

The story works, not just because Follett knows how to keep a plot moving and how to intercut the various strands of narrative for suspense, but because he has a solid talent for describing physical action. Harald's flight in the restored Hornet, with the inevitable malfunctions that almost spell disaster, is rendered with an admirable clarity. Follett achieves the verbal equivalent of the invisible craft you find in '40s Hollywood movies, and you read him for the same sort of pleasure you get from a WWII action melodrama like Carol Reed's "Night Train to Munich." Follett is essentially a romantic (his first big success, "Eye of the Needle," borrowed the plot of "Lady Chatterley's Lover" for the purposes of a spy story) in love with derring-do. If "Hornet Flight" and "Jackdaws" feel familiar (that's part of their pleasure), they're also good arguments that there are still plenty of good stories left in World War II.

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By Ross Thomas
336 pages
Thomas Dunne Books

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Ross Thomas is the most entertaining mystery writer I've ever read, and one of the shames of American publishing is that almost all of his novels were out of print when he died in 1995. Beginning with "Out on the Rim" and "Briarpatch," St. Martin's Press is righting that wrong by republishing the work of this genuine American master. I envy those of you who will read Thomas for the first time, and I can't be the only longtime reader happy to know that we can now send people to bookstores and actually have them find him back on the shelves. (Used copies of his books have often commanded whopping prices.)

The best short description of Thomas' work came from a Village Voice writer who said that what Elmore Leonard did for crime in the streets, Thomas did for "crime in the suites." Thomas, who worked as a reporter and in public relations and politics before becoming a full-time writer, wrote what are essentially dry, sardonic farces. His villains are almost always corrupt corporate honchos or politicians whose feet are itching to climb the ladder of success. Nothing shocked Thomas -- he accepted the intersection of business, politics and crime as a given -- or his heroes.

The good guys in a Thomas novel are traditionally small-timers, outflanked in power and money by the big-timers they're going up against, who win by being the most cunning bastards they can be. But they're our bastards -- they waste no tears on the baddies whose fates are short, sharp and swift.

In the 1983 "Missionary Stew," the plot of which prefigures the Iran-Contra scandal, a pair of freelance American intelligence spooks is about to be executed for their part in propping up a Latin American military dictatorship. When they spot an American political fixer they know in the crowd of spectators and scream out for help, the fellow's response is to raise a Polaroid to take a shot of them getting what they so richly deserve. "Draper Haere took the film from the camera," Thomas writes. "He turned and walked away through the still-silent crowd. The film slowly developed. It turned out to be an excellent picture."

You get the feeling that, had anyone congratulated Thomas for the prescience he showed in "Missionary Stew," he would have shrugged it off and asked how it would be possible not to imagine that the sons of bitches in the Reagan White House would sink so low.

The political philosophy of Thomas' books is an amalgam of Lyndon B. Johnson and Leo Durocher. Thomas knew that in politics, nice guys finish last, and that good things are often accomplished by deal-making, wiliness, influence, blackmail and the sheer wielding of power. Those are not the qualities heralded by people who think politics should be the province of idealism. But it's nice to fantasize about the current crop of Democratic presidential candidates dipping into a Ross Thomas novel and perhaps being inspired to grow a pair.

The political skulduggery in "Briarpatch" begins with a cop, Felicity Dill, being blown up in her car. Her brother Ben, who works for a Senate subcommittee investigating corrupt business practices, returns to their hometown for the funeral and to find out who killed his sister. As is usually the case in a Thomas novel, the cast of second bananas, who range from the naive to the cynical, from the good-hearted to the lowlifes who exist in every social strata, have the loony individuality of the characters in a Preston Sturges movie.

Thomas, a master plotter who lets his stories unfold with the careful deliberation of a poker player waiting to lay down a winning hand, is a whiz at casual wisecracking American vernacular. Here's a veteran black waiter at a press club, prized for the abuse he doles out to members, giving it back to an old, shabby political reporter cadging a free steak and a shrimp cocktail: "You eat that shrimp, old man, and you're gonna be up around two or three reaching for the Gelusil like always ... One of these days I'm gonna serve you your chili-mac like you always eat, instead of that nice porterhouse you went and promoted yourself this evening, and you're gonna dip your spoon in it and shovel it into that big ugly mouth or yours and swallow it, and then your eyes're gonna bulge out like this, and you're gonna get all red in the face, even redder'n the drink's done made it, and then you're gonna keel over dead and guess who's gonna have to mop it all up? Me. That's who."

Those individual comic voices, the pleasurably nasty shocks the book has in store, Thomas' masterly plotting -- all of them could be the subject of an essay. Suffice it to say that few mystery writers, American or otherwise, have come anywhere near the savviness of Thomas, or his delight in the rhythms and attitude of everyday American speech (Joe Gores and Donald E. Westlake are two writers working in the same wised-up tradition). I doubt whether American publishing will bring any more joyful news this year than Ross Thomas being back in print. It should never be any other way.

By Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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