(Wild Wolf Publishing 2011)
Black Shadows is a detective novel of the ‘hard-boiled’ variety, though it owes more to Mickey Spillane, I think, than to Raymond Chandler. It’s set in 1945 in New York, with a prologue set ten years earlier: the narrator and protagonist is Errol Christopher Black, sometimes called ‘Eezy’. On his first evening back in the city after a holiday, Black is approached by a young, beautiful woman – Claudia – who wants him to follow her fiancé and find out if he’s faithful to her. This Black does, but the next evening, while watching George and another, very beautiful woman, at dinner in Chinatown, he hears shots outside, and finds his erstwhile friend and former colleague, Dyke Spanner, dying in the alleyway. Black investigates Spanner’s death, drawing upon friends and connections in Chinatown, Timmy Matthews in the police force, his friend and partner Hermeez Wentz, receptionist and investigator Ava, and then, later, a mob family, the Cortenes, and their Irish counterparts, the Tighes. Adversaries appear to include the Portly Gangster (also known as The Coward) and his ‘boys’ who seem to think that Black knows more than he does about a blue diamond, and the gangster ‘Dutch’ Schultz’s death.
This isn’t a very good book: it really needs thorough editing and proper proof-reading. However, the plot is cleverly worked out, and there are several strands which come together nicely: I was certainly intrigued enough to keep on reading to the end. Some of the characters are interesting, and there are occasional good lines. I feel that there is a good novel here struggling to get out from beneath the bad prose.
The tone wanders badly: although the action is set in 1945, the reader gets very little sense that she’s reading about real people of that time. Some examples: when we first encounter Claudia she’s wearing an evening gown with a cardigan. A woman in 1945 would not wear a cardigan with evening dress – furs, yes, or a silk coat – and her dress would be unlikely to show “long, tanned legs”. She would also be very unlikely to be living in the same house as her fiancé, and she’d be very unlikely to offer one hundred dollars as a fee for a simple surveillance job. I also got very little sense that the war was going on – although Black and Wentz are supposedly veterans of Guadalcanal – or had recently ended. For some reason there is reference to Little Odessa in the 1970s – which would only work if Black was writing from the viewpoint of looking back on his career, which sense one doesn’t get from the rest of the novel. The author has evidently researched the geography of New York and its environs, but the information is conveyed in a series of info-dumps, much of which doesn’t add anything to the story.
The characters, particularly the women, are not well-drawn: one doesn’t get any real sense of why they’re behaving in the ways they do, since motivations are explained rather than shown. Black himself is actually not very sympathetic or likeable, and one wonders what any of the women see in him: he doesn’t show any of the vulnerabilities of a Philip Marlowe or Lew Archer, and there’s none of the psychological depth of Chandler or Macdonald. The dialogue is often clunky and unrealistic. By the way, Ava is Black and Wentz’s receptionist, not Black’s former girlfriend:
“… I sipped at my champagne cognac and put my feet up on the desk.
‘Errol, how could you do it? I know what you’re like… for God’s sake I ought to.” she paused a moment, her beautiful face a mask of anguish. ‘He was your friend, did that mean nothing to you?’
I sighed deeply and finished off the cognac, instantly pouring another. ‘I don’t need this right now. Come on sweetheart, not now. I’ve just got here, I haven’t had much sleep and there’s a lot of things I gotta do. Let’s drop it, eh?’
At that, Ava left the room and went back to her typing. She returned a few minutes later. Now wearing a more conciliatory, calm look on her face, she held out her hands. I looked up to her and shone out a wide smile.
‘Okay, I’m sorry,’ she offered and sat right on the end of my desk. ‘Maybe I went a little over the top. I know it’s none of my business, but I do still care, Errol, you know I do.’
‘Come here precious,’ I urged and gave a good, friendly hug. ‘You’re the best, you know that. I need you, but I need your support more than anything.’
She smiled a little embarrassed and stood back a few paces …”
It’s a convention of the hard-boiled genre that the women (or some of them, at least) are sexually available, but Swift describes all of the women in that way. Perhaps it’s realistic for the time, although the writers of the time were circumscribed by the mores, so that if sex did occur it was never described. Call me prudish if you like, but a description like this, of would-be femme fatale, Marlow (stupid name) is ludicrous:
“Her nipples were pink and erect, as big as golf balls, but softer to touch. They invited me to do exactly that.”
The whole book makes me wonder why one would write a ‘hard-boiled’ detective novel in 2011 – it’s a form of the genre that has pretty much gone out of fashion (except perhaps for James Ellroy – and Swift is no James Ellroy). Historical crime novels aren’t a new development, and some of my favourite detective novels are of this type – Barbara Cleverly’s Joe Sandilands books, for example. The ‘hard-boiled’ genre seems to me to have skirted the boundary of what was then acceptable; nowadays, when almost anything goes in fiction, the genre has lost its edge and significance. It strikes me, having read the book, that Black Shadows is almost a work of fan-fiction: that Swift had set out to write Hammett or Spillane again, but with different characters.
Not wholly recommended.
I should add, perhaps, that the book has three five-star reviews on Amazon, so your mileage may vary.