Down & Out Books
reviewed by Tim Hennessy
With the volume of detective fiction published today, emerging from a crowded pack has never been more difficult. Protagonists piecing together answers to convoluted mysteries is such a familiar path to head down, I swear off as much detective fiction as I pick up, always vowing I’m done, that I’ve read enough.Whether a seasoned, hard-boiled investigator or an amateur doing a favor for a friend, the PI novel is a genre weighed down by its history and popularity. With an overabundance of white male detectives running through the fictional mean streets and dark alleys, looking to right wrongs while busy self-consciously narrating, and maintaining their buzz, what has kept the detective novel appealing for over 150 years?
You can find one answer in the exciting narratives coming from the points of view of underrepresented authors and their protagonists, who are revitalizing the genre and making it more relevant. One of the bright spots in recent years, Danny Gardner’s A Negro and an Ofay, explores the complicated racial politics and code-switching necessary to navigating the 1952 Midwest.
When life had him by the short hairs, [Elliot] often fantasized about being a good student who graduated on the Dean’s list. Then he could have traded on his near-whiteness to land a job in the front office of some industrial farm in Illinois. Could’ve had a name tag. Maybe a desk. Dated some chippie from the secretarial pool. Perhaps that would have kept him from enlisting in Patton’s Third Army. He would have never followed every other discharged colored to the big city. He wouldn’t have taken the police academy test while drunk, just to show much smarter he was.
Elliot Caprice is the embodiment of otherness, abandoned by his white mother after his black father dies in a race riot. He is “a city boy trapped in farm country” raised by his father’s brother in Southland, a small rural Illinois community where as a young man, he collected vigs for Izzy, a Jewish loan maker and additional father figure. Elliot is also a war veteran who became a South Side Chicago police officer upon his return. Working amongst rampant corruption, Elliot was blackmailed into snitching on dirty cops once his past relationship with Izzy came to light. Elliot complicates matters for himself further when he involves himself with a former police lieutenant turned beat crime reporter William Drury, who investigated organized crime and its ties to the policing community.
Great characters have always been the engine that’s driven and sustained detective novels beyond any given books’ mystery. In the short span of his life, Elliot has done a lot of living, and Gardner’s loaded his first novel with an abundant supporting cast in which there’s hardly a character that comes in contact with Elliot that doesn’t have a complicated history with him or an uneasy rapport.
In the first third of the novel, Gardner layers Elliot’s conflicts with his past as well as his community on thick, with multiple subplots that would make any number of great novels. Much of the first act gives quick glimpses into Elliot’s past to establish the character. Elliot’s time serving in the war changed everything for him.
For the average Negro, the existence of concentration camps was an abstraction. Just another example of how ofays do each other when there were no niggers around. Once Patton took colored regiments deep within German territory, they witnessed atrocities that eclipsed the tortures of Jim Crow. …the next concentration camps to be liberated would hold colored bodies. This was his motivation for joining the Chicago Police Department. …He desired to legitimize himself. Perhaps legitimize colored folk overall.
One is still left wanting more of a sense of Elliot’s time as a younger man trying to navigate the dismaying effects of returning home from war. Also, further exploring the conflicts Elliot’s time collecting for Izzy presented as he began his career as a police officer would make an excellent time period we can hope Gardner explores later in the series.
So where does the detective story come in? That plot thread picks up much later when Elliot learns that his Uncle Buster lost his farm after taking out a bad loan to help pay labor for the planting season. Matters complicate quickly when Buster falls ill, and loses his workers to a competitor, failing to keep up with payments.
To help pay off his uncle’s debt, Elliot takes on work as a process server hoping he can figure out a way to save the farm. He’s dispatched to get a signature from a wealthy widow in the midst of an estate battle with her husband’s adult children. Their sudden marriage after his first wife died in a boating accident raised suspicions and when he later drowns in a bathtub after changing his will to benefit her, foul play was suspected. Seizing an opportunity to make some side cash, Elliot’s hired to examine the complexities of her legal situation so she can retain the assets her husband left her.
Following in the footsteps of his golden-aged predecessors, Gardner sends Elliot down a familiar path filled with duplicitous wealthy relations, and broader entanglements that involve organized crime, and familiar federal law enforcement officers that complicate his life yet again. Gardner’s novel is too action heavy to balance the elements of race and class that are also on its mind. The book has a lot of plot threads to connect and resolve, which it does with the aid of a massive shootout. While fun and well executed, the action sequence served as an opportunity to bring disparate plot threads together rather than build tension.
Even though not all of the story elements work in equal measure, Danny Gardner is laying the foundation for a fascinating and complex character. The more opportunities we have to view the detective genre through different experiences like those in the works of Attica Locke, Adi Tantimedh, Steph Cha, and Alex Segura the more it vital it will continue to be. Each of these writers’ like Gardner uses their sleuths to look at social issues intersecting cultural conflicts of the past and present all while bringing a fresh perspective to a familiar genre.