Lee experiences first hand ugly racism in his brief job as a garment district rack boy, gets into a fistfight with his employer and is fired on the very first day. All this is to serve to build a reputation as a bad boy to make him more attractive as a recruit for the Bloody Blacks. He finds a cheap room in the home of the Johnsons where he befriends teenager Ace, a hooligan braggart who dreams of owning his own fighter jet and dropping bombs on Klansmen in the South. Lee listens to ridiculous stories that have filled Ace's easily manipulated mind all of which come from the brains behind the Bloody Blacks -- an intimidating man known only as "Purple Eye." With the help of fellow police officer Mary Parenti, working undercover in the guise of a social worker, he is to find out the identity of Purple Eye and stop the secret plan that has only been hinted at in the rambling bravado talk of gang members like Ace.
Harlem Underground is a remarkably resonant book for our time. Considering what just happened in South Carolina its also a sober reminder that things never seem to change. Written only months after the Harlem race riots and with the murder of Malcom X still fresh in the minds of everyone Harlem Underground is an angry book filled with volatile emotions, didactic speeches, intolerance on multiple levels. Eerily, when the nightmarish plot of the Bloody Blacks is uncovered Lacy foresees the kind of terrorist acts that have become nearly commonplace today. Lacy intersperses the story of Lee's undercover work with journalistic passages (some actually lifted verbatim from newspaper accounts) describing the struggles and unfair treatment of the people of Harlem.
Among these accounts are the story of a pregnant teen who doesn't know or care who the father of her baby is, a black teen sent to the store to buy a can of chili but who shocks his father when he steals it, a black youth riding the subway who pretends to help a fearful white man fix his radio but takes it and runs, and Lee's rejection by a prospective employer who is shocked when a black man turns up at the interview. Lacy presents all these stories in a straightforward style telling each vignette in a first person narrative. So true and natural are these voices they come across as though he transcribed their words from an interview tape. Though fictional they are as true as a story on the nightly news. One can't help but join in their anger and buy into all the rationalizations each character gives for their behavior.
Lee Hayes does get his promotion. He appeared one more time, this time as a police detective partnered with Jewish cop Al Kahn, in Lacy's final polemical Harlem novel aptly titled In Black & Whitey (1967). The only paperback edition of this book touts "Soon To Be a Major Motion Picture!" but I'm not sure it was ever made. Lacy's entry at imdb.com doesn't list any movie or TV episode resembling the novel. Movie mavens can feel free to enlighten me in the comment section if I'm wrong.
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Reading Challenge update: Silver Age card, space R3 - "Book with place in title" This is the corresponding missing category that should've been on the Silver Age Bingo card in the last column.