Friday, June 26, 2015

FFB: Harlem Underground - Ed Lacy

Lee Hayes, the rookie patrolman protagonist of Harlem Underground (1965), has been summoned by his captain. He's sure that he is about to receive a promotion to detective for his recent nabbing of a serial rapist. Imagine his disappointment when he hears from a fellow cop that he's being transferred to an uptown station to work as a typist. Can't be true, he thinks. He did some incredible work on that rapist case.  It's all a smokescreen for his fellow beat cops. The typist job is a cover so word won't get out about his real assignment. Chosen specifically for his youthful looks and street smart sensibility the 23 year-old Lee is to go undercover as a teenager and infiltrate a gang known as the Bloody Blacks who are responsible for several violent hate crimes against whites and are rumored to be plotting something worse than muggings and stabbings.

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.

While both Lee and Mary do some impressive detective work the mystery novel aspects are thin here.  True, there is final reveal of the identity of Purple Eye but it's not all that surprising.  Nor is that Lacy's intent. The story serves only as a method to explore race relations at a time when the civil rights movement already seemed to be failing. Lacy allows for several fervent speeches about race relations, some delivered with thoughtfulness and understanding like the scenes between Lee and Helen Johnson. But there are more instances of the zealotry of Black Power and bigotry as nasty as the ingrained unfairness whites inflict on blacks.  This ranges from the intolerant thoughts of the West Indian grocery store owner to the unbridled hatred for whites exhibited in the inflammatory dialogue of Solmen, superintendent of the building where the Johnsons and Lee live.

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.

*   *   *


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.

3 comments:

  1. Though Ed Lacy has written the stories for a very few TV episodes, no novel of his has been adapted for the screen.
    Incidentally, Ed Lacy was married to a black woman.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I knew you'd replace that "Size in the Title" boo-boo of mine. :-)

    ReplyDelete
  3. Great review!

    I found a whole bunch of Ed Lacys on the Munseys site, and am aching for the time to read them. This review makes me ache even more!

    ReplyDelete

Comment Approval is turned on for this blog. I review all comments prior to publishing them.