|PRIVATE EYE INVESTIGATIONS
Oct 22, 2008
Special for THE NEW TIMES HOLLER!
© Amir Bey, 2007
The cover of Clyde Ford's newest novel, Precious Cargo
James Crumley's The Last Good Kiss
Walter Mosley's Cinnamon Kiss
PRIVATE EYE INVESTIGATIONS
Valerie Wilson Wesley's Dying In The Dark
Special for THE NEW TIMES HOLLER!
©AMIR BEY, 2008
It was late Saturday night when Spencetta, my secretary, told me somebody named Peter was on the phone.
“Peter who?” I asked.
“Says he’s a buddy from the Homestead.”
She was talkin’ about Peter Alan Harper, a poet and reporter who’s not so mild-mannered. He used to write for Big Red, The Times, and others.
“Whassup, Peter!”, I shouted.
“Not much and a whole lot at the same time”, -too bad his readers can’t hear his trademark baritone growl.
“Hey, I thought you’d like to know that Clyde Ford’s doin’ a book signing for his latest novel, Precious Cargo (2008, Vanguard Press) at Hue Man Bookstore next week. ”
“Maybe I can check ‘em out. I been tied up with some jobs, so I don’t know if I can make it.”
Clyde Ford. I hadn’t seen him in years. By chance I’d followed his career loosely over the decades, seeing articles dealing with his chiropractic concepts in health journals and happening upon his The Hero With An African Face some years ago.
A few days later I’m at Hue Man Bookstore & Café on Frederick Douglass Ave near 125th Street in Harlem, USA. When I walked into the room Clyde was busy setting up his presentation. After not seeing someone for 40 years it’s like going back in time and in the future all at once. Clyde was Clyde, same small curled ears, head shape, just a little older.
“Hi Clyde, it’s me Julian Cherot.” I said, using my birth name.
“Hey, you look great! He smiled in his gracious way; some things never change.
Precious Cargo is set in his current haunts in the northwest, around the San Juan Islands of Washington State. He lives in Bellingham, often on his boat, and is a licensed teacher of kayaking. The descriptions of the islands, the various straits, coves, beaches, passes and the changes in the waters’ currents and weather are as poetic as they are painterly. Ford’s like an artist creating sketches that he fashions into intimate seascapes. His inclusion of the unique culture of people living and enjoying the life of sailing in those waters beckons readers to taste some of it for themselves. At times the boating terms made me wish he included a glossary. But a reader’s imagination can dissolve those hindrances as their eyes flow along each rippling page.
The main character, a private eye named Charlie Noble, is an African American who resigned from the Coast Guard because he disobeyed his commanding officer by refusing to falsify a report. Charlie was first introduced in 2005 in Ford’s Red Herring. In Precious Cargo and Red Herring Charlie drinks local micro brews, eats 12 grain bread, drinks Red Mountain Reserve, and tries to replace morning coffee with protein smoothies when he can. Unlike many private eye novels, Charlie Noble smokes no dope, doesn’t get drunk, and doesn’t chase women, having a relationship with Kate, a Coast Guard officer. Ford’s social concerns are evident in the story. Without giving the story away, young female Mexican illegal immigrants are found murdered, with one attached to an anchor. It’s apparent their murders are connected to their smuggling and exploitation. Ford likens the crimes committed against illegals to the Atlantic slave trade, and Charlie Noble makes private investigative warfare on these modern slave traders. Ford is at his best in describing suspenseful action, whether it involves Charlie Noble’s struggles and triumphs against the criminal element or his wrestling and subsequent truce with an insurmountable sea storm.
An excerpt from Precious Cargo:
Shimmering stars arrived overhead at first, followed by an orange moon just past full. A satellite sped across the face of the night sky. On the other side of Rosario Strait, a red light moved against the dark landmass of Cypress Island. I picked up my night-vision binoculars, which transformed the darkness into a world of garish yellow-green light. The running light belonged to a boat maybe forty feet long, shaped like a Grand Banks, heading east along Rosario. Smuggler’s Cove still lay empty.
If you want to check out Clyde reading an excerpt from his book at Hueman Bookstore, click on the NOWSROOM button above. You can also visit his website at Clydeford.com.
Little did I know that Precious Cargo would lead me on a voyage through some more novels.
I started to wonder; Ford took me on a cruise in the northwest. What would another writer say about a different area and lifestyle? I called up my old friend and writer from the Black Bear Ranch days Donald Monkerud in Santa Cruz, California.
“Hey Monk, what’s up; how're the nuns!”
There was a pause, then, “Hey Bey, you tell me?!”
“I’m lookin’ for somebody to do a job in the plains states, or maybe Texas, Montana, somewhere in cowboy country. “
“James Crumley’s your guy, ‘cause he covers that whole area. Careful though, his characters ain’t goin’ to heaven or hell, an’ in between don’t want ‘em either. “
“Didn’t he just die in September?”
“Yeah, but he’s got a lot to say. Hey, look, I gotta go.”
“Next time, Monk.”
So I get Crumley’s The Last Good Kiss (1978, Vintage Crime/black Lizard Edition, 1988), featuring C.W. Sugrue (“ ‘Shoog’ as in sugar, honey, and ‘rue’ as in rue the goddamned day”), who works out of Montana. Much of the sleuthing by this ex-Viet Nam vet who faced Leavenworth Prison involves drinking, fornicating, smoking, fighting, and shootin’ folks takes place on the road. While Ford writes nautical thrillers, Crumley’s voyages are psychological, and the islands sailed in this novel are the many bars that much of the action takes place in. The reader gets to know his characters in deep, rich detail. Crumley describes their mothers, children, illnesses, and their loneliness. Spiced with humor, he weaves their vices intricately into the webs he builds. Their voices can be heard, and while Crumely gives physical descriptions of everyone but Sugrue, the reader can see him just as clearly. I imagined him as a shortened dark-haired version of the 1970s Oakland Raiders’ quarterback Kenny Stabler.
The Last Good Kissbegins with its hero finally catching up with is quarry, Abraham Trahearne, in a Sausalito bar. Trahearne is a Nick Nolte-type ex-WWII Marine who happens to be an alcoholic famous novelist who hasn’t published in years. Sugrue was initially hired by Trahearne’s ex-wife to locate him. She periodically hires private eyes to locate him and bring him back before he kills himself, she says. While in this Sausalito bar, the bar owner hires Sugrue to locate her daughter Betty Sue. This leads him on a mystery tour of highways, shady characters (like himself), Trahearne’s strange family situation of his mother, ex-wife, and Audrey Hepburn-like wife Melinda, all living together, and rednecks (the N word was used twice, but not by Sugrue). People and locations are visited and revisited in a looping fashion many times. This psychological road story ends on the last two pages, and throughout the story there are many twists and implications that mislead the viewer, even if the impending doom that one of the characters faces is evident. A good read.
From The Last Good Kiss:
One summer when I was a child, after my parents separated, I had lived with my father out on the plains east of Fort Collins, north and east of a little town called Ault, during that summer, stayed with him and a short widow woman and her three little kids. He was trying to dry-farm her wheat land, and we all lived in a basement out on the plains, a basement with no house over it, where we lived in the ground like moles, looking up through the skylight, waiting for the rain that never came.
After all of that traveling on the road and ranging the northwest waters, I couldn’t wait to get back to urban America and to the land and time of one of my rebirths, mid 1960’s California. For that I needed to enlist the help of Walter Mosley’s P.I., Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins. While I had to be careful with Crumley’s folks, and the dangers of Ford’s Sea storm, the dangers that lurked in post-Watts L.A. and the San Francisco Bay Area of Mosley’s Cinnamon Kiss (2005, Grand Central Publishing Edition), required a vigilance that no jungle, highway, or raging sea demanded.
Easy Rollins is hired to locate the Philomena Cargill, known as “Cinnamon” (hence Cinnamon Kiss) because of her complexion. She’s the African American girlfriend of Axel Bowers, a white activist lawyer in the Haight Ashbury neighborhood of San Francisco, who is also missing and who has some important documents that are threatening to the powerful people who are hiring him. At the same time Easy’s daughter Feather has a life-threatening blood infection that can only be treated in a special clinic in Switzerland, costing $40,000, enough to make him join a heist with his patnuh Mouse, or, take on a job such as this.
Mosley’s shifting actions and parade of sharply depicted characters in Cinnamon Kiss lead the reader through mazes of subtle deception until the final pages, when he introduces the person behind a string of murders. And that revelation is a set up for the final punch line, which delves deeper into Easy Rawlins’ most personal concern in the book’s last lines. The story, with its abundant details, simmering suspense, and plain funkiness are masks to the underlying currents that are what finally matters.
Mosley places the story between the aftermath of L.A.’s Watts Riot when burned out stores and houses are part of the backdrop, and the beginnings of the Hippie movement in the San Francisco Bay Area. It’s notable that this is also just before The Black Panther Party for Self Defense jumped off in Oakland, where he spends sometime in the beginning. This juncture between social strife and acceptance is another of Mosley’s subtleties here: his sense of time and how it defines his characters and gives the story its tone.
From Cinnamon Kiss:
She was tall for a woman, five eight or so, the color of tree bark. She hadn’t made 25, which was why the weight she carried seemed to defy gravity. For all her size her waist was slender, but that wasn’t her most arresting feature. Georgette gave off the most amazing odor. It was like the smell of a whole acre of tomato plants – earthy and pungent. I took her hand and raised my lips so that I could get my nose up next to her skin.
The big boy came to stand next to my chair.
My heart was thundering. My mind was at an intersection of many possible paths. I wanted to ask that woman what she was thinking when she asked me if I was a delivery boy when obviously I was not. Was she trying to be rude or did my skin color rob her of reason? I wanted to ask the bodyguard why he felt it necessary to stand over me as if I were a prisoner or a criminal when I hadn’t done anything but ask to see his boss. I wanted to yell and pull out my gun and start shooting.
But all I did was sit there staring up at the white ceiling.
I thought about the coat of paint upon the plaster. It meant that at one time a man in a white jumpsuit had stood on a ladder in the middle of that room running a roller or maybe waving a brush above his head. That was another room but the same, at another time when there was no tension but only labor. That man probably had children at home, I decided. His hard work turned into food and clothing for them.
That white ceiling made me happy. After a moment I forgot about my bodyguard and the woman who couldn’t see the man standing in front of her but only the man she had been trained to see.
These private eyes –or private dicks as they say- made me wonder how a woman private. I mean, the women in novels by male writers are often mysterious, exotic, erotic, scampy and sometimes trampy. The male P.I. can be nearly fatally absorbed by femmes fatales, hired by them, led and bled by them. Would a woman writer create a man that way? What would her heroine be like? Un homme noir for a female writer is…? So I turned to two of the best word sleuths in the business, Amiri Baraka and Thulani Davis, and they both named Valerie Wilson Wesley as the woman for the job.
That took me from sunny California, where even as far north as San Francisco there’s palm trees, to the rockin’ and gritty city of Newark, New Jersey, the scenes of the crimes for Wesley’s heroine, Tamara Hayle. I grabbed the only copy of Wesley’s seven book Tamara Hayle series that I could find in New York City (well, the first one after several attempts), Dying In The Dark (2005, One World Books), a title taken from a Haiku-like Langston Hughes poem:
John Henry with his hammer
Makes a little spark
That little spark is love
Dying in the dark
Dying begins with Tamara being haunted by dreams about her gruesomely murdered estranged high school buddy, Celia Jones. She was shot six times, once through her womb, y’all. Celia’s teenage son Cecil visits her and plunks down $400 and retains her: “I want you to find my mama’s killer.” When his cell phones and beeper prompts her to ask him how he got his money, he says, “That’s enough to start?” He leaves her bewildered, but committed. A few days later he too is murdered, stabbed through his heart.
If you’ll remember, the search for a female erotic notion of hommes fatales brought me to Newark. However, this is the seventh installment of the Tamara Hayle series. And at this time in her life Tamara is like Easy Rawlins, a single parent. However, unlike him she’s approaching her middle years in the inner city. She’s not searching for men, only suspects, and wary of encounters. The three heroes of the preceding novels are all motivated by some form of love and care for the woman they come across, with Easy’s being the most colorful. Even Crumley’s character Sugrue’s drunken episodes with his lovers are caring and admiring. Tamara is cautious, so I was sleuthing, wondering when “it” was going to go down, who was “it” gwine to be with? Well, “it” didn’t happen; you’ll have to check out her earlier episodes for that.
Tamara’s investigative method in Dying In The Dark is her personal motivation, guided by her intuition. Critical information is reached through incidental sisterly conversations in a beauty parlor and other indirect discoveries. Of the four novels, these murders had more emotional angst. With a teen age pregnancy, broken marriages, a friend who was passionately loved and also hated killed, two murders of young thugs, frustrated lives and loves, a VD infection that led to a miscarriage, and a woman covered with the ashes of her deceased husband, the answer to the question of who killed Celia Jones left me with feelings of despair and bleakness. Much of the “action” took place inside of Tamara and dealt with the resolution of personal issues in relation to the society that she lived in. The conclusion was not a finite statement, but, like any day in the life, it led to the next set of possibilities.