Friday, January 4, 2013

FFB: Room to Swing - Ed Lacy

I have a thing about the Edgar Awards. I happen to think a lot of the award winners didn't deserve that little statue of Poe. Only occasionally do I come across a truly worthy Edgar winning mystery novel. Room to Swing (1958) won the Edgar for Best Novel. It's most definitely one of the deserving winners. Not only that - it's a little known, little discussed, hardly reviewed at all, landmark novel in the history of crime fiction by a writer who deserves a lot more attention.

Toussaint Marcus Moore is a private detective hired by Kay Robbens, a TV executive, to shadow the subject of a soon to be aired reality TV show that sounds exactly like a 1950s version of "America's Most Wanted." The man, Robert Thomas, is wanted by Ohio police for a rape and assault of a teenage girl and Kay know he is currently living under an assumed name in Manhattan. Moore is to keep an eye on Thomas and make sure he doesn't leave New York until the show is aired. Then Kay hopes some TV viewer will spot Thomas, notify police, and he'll be arrested thus validating the purpose of the TV show and insuring it has a long run. But Thomas ends up dead, Moore is framed for the murder, and he flees the city. Moore is determined to clear his name, but in order to do that he needs to uncover who killed Thomas and why. He figures it's all linked to the rape case.

His travels take him to Bingston, a small Ohio town on the Kentucky border, where he holes up in a makeshift boarding house owned by one of the few black couples in town. This is good for Moore because as a black man himself with an opinionated, unguarded way of speaking he was nearly run out of town by the bigoted police officers in Bingston. He finds an ally of sorts in Frances Russell who immediately sees through his bad impression of an itinerant jazz musician. She will serve as his captive audience (and later a sometime assistant) as he tells his tale to her in a series of flashbacks.

What's most remarkable about this book is that with all its talk about race relations, its depiction of a complex black man in the 1950s fed up with being called "Boy" by nearly every white man he meets, disgusted with segregated hotels and restaurants and entire portions of cities, and "whites who can sure say the jerkiest things" is that it was written by a white Jewish New Yorker. Leonard Zinberg lived in Harlem all his life. Before creating his private detective (named after two prominent activists in Black history, I might add) Zinberg had always been interested in race relations and leftist politics. As early as 1935 he wrote a story titled "Lynch Him!" a hint at his strong feelings about the treatment of blacks. Later he wrote several stories about boxers, one of them Walk Hard, Talk Loud (1940) is the story of a black boxer and his relationship with a white woman who also happen s to be a Communist activist.

Room to Swing is a fantastic book. Well written, smart without being smart alecky, prescient and insightful in ways that make it seem like you are reading a book written only a few years old rather than decades old. The mystery is a good one if not one that has jaw dropping surprises, but what makes the book noteworthy are the well drawn characters and Zinberg's insights into black/white relations. Touie is one of the best of the earliest of the black private eyes. It's a shame he only appeared in two books.

For more on Ed Lacy I suggest you read Ed Lynskey's well written and very detailed article at Mystery*File. A review of the follow-up book The Moment of Untruth featuring Toussaint Moore in his second and last appearance in an even better constructed mystery than the one here, will be posted tomorrow. Ed Lacy is one writer I'm glad I discovered and whose books I am rapidly acquiring and reading with great interest.

14 comments:

  1. Your review will make me find this book in my collection and move to a new TBR shelf that I am establishing for books I plan to read (for sure) in 2013.

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    1. You're sure to enjoy it, Kent. Stumbling across Zinberg/Lacy was one of the best discoveries for me in 2012. I probably never would have discovered this book if Toussaint Moore hadn't turned up as part of my trivia quiz!

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  2. That's a fine review, and an inspiring one: It really makes me want to read the book in question. One thing that a good detective novel can do is to deliver the qualities that “serious” or “straight” fiction aims to deliver—social comment, say, or elemental human drama—in a way that’s free of pretension or bombast. From your description of “Room to Swing,” I’d gather that it fits that bill quite well.

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    1. Thanks, Mike. I could've been more detailed, but I was afraid of ruining the book. The sparsely written story ironically is dense and rich. Zinberg/Lacy has an economy with words, but he writes so well and elicits a lot of power in brief sketches and trenchant dialogue exchanges. The sequel is even better with a vast improvement in its tricky and unusual plot. Room to Swing succeeds more in its social commentary and observations rather than its crime plot. As you say it's as "free of pretension and bombast" as you can get. I admire this book tremendously. It deserves to be reprinted and be better known.

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  3. Your feelings to the Edgar's reminded me of the time I was working at Tower Records. During the late 80s,I was involved in the movie business enough to see the realities behind the Oscar and Emmy. At Tower I worked with professional musicians (Tower was their day job). They hated the Grammys. They could tell me all the more deserving works of music than the stuff that actually won the awards. But they loved the Oscar, thinking it actually picks the Best Picture.

    I have found the more you know about what is out there, reading more mysteries. listening to more music, watching more films and television, the more you hate the awards.

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    1. Great story, michael. I agree with your last sentence. The older I get the more I see these big entertainment awards as nothing more than clubs getting together to bestow accolades on their friends and loved ones without any regard for quality or artistic merit. Popularity contests essentially. Meh.

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    2. Well, they aren't usually considered, informed judgement awards...they are usually popularity awards one way or another.

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  4. Good review, John. This is the first time I have read about an active detective being framed for murder. I have lost count of the number of times I have debated whether to pick up an Ed Lacy paperback or not, from the secondhand bookstore I frequent. I do have his STRIP FOR VIOLENCE in ebook format though I am still to read it. Now I think I'll get to it a lot quicker.

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    1. I'm sure it'll be worth your while, Prashant. I bought three other Lacy books after reading the two with Touie Moore. He's as good and as underrated as Jonathan Craig, IMO. Interesting that both men being such good writers chose to hide behind a pseudonym.

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    2. Snobbery against crime fiction and hostility (even if much of it well-deserved) to the nature of Leninism would out.

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  5. I totally agree with you about the high quality of Ed Lacy.
    And that deservedly won the Edgar. But I would like to be spoken also of those who, earning the Edgar, didn't conquer it: for example William Krasner.
    I have got by Ed Lacy three novels: Bugged for murder, Shakedown for murder, and, obviously, Room to swing.
    Into italian editions.
    How are you, John?
    P.

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  6. Well that's a real eye-opener for me as I've not read anything by Lacy - fantastic review John, will definitely be tracking this one down.

    All the best,


    Sergio

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  7. http://youtu.be/W1H59xqibus

    Mystery*File's links today about "Lacy"...courtesy Bill Crider

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    1. The link above is to a film clip of Debra Paget dancing in a Fritz Lang movie for those who interested. Cut and paste error, I'm sure, that reveals Todd's penchants. Here's the real link to the Ed Lacy post at Mystery*File. It includes a link to the Ed Lacy article which appears in Tablet, an online magazine about Jewish topics, and mentions many of the things I talk about above.

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