Friday, September 25, 2009

The Book You Have to Read: “Room to
Swing,” by Ed Lacy

(Editor’s note: This is the 64th installment of our ongoing Friday blog series highlighting great but forgotten books. Today’s pick comes from Art Taylor, a fiction writer, book critic, and assistant professor of English at George Mason University. His article “Murder in Black & White: Novels of the Civil Rights Era,” which also discussed Ed Lacy’s Room to Swing, appeared in Mystery Scene’s Fall 2008 issue. Taylor blogs about Southern Literature, as well as mysteries and thrillers, at Art & Literature.)

Fifty-two years ago today--on September 25, 1957--the black students known as the “Little Rock Nine” were escorted into Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, under the protection of more than 1,000 members of the 101st Airborne Division of the U.S. Army. President Dwight Eisenhower’s declaration of martial law in Little Rock--and the installation of federal troops in a Southern city in this capacity for the first time since Reconstruction--was necessitated by what had happened in the weeks leading up to that day: Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus calling up the National Guard on the side of the segregationists, bearing arms to keep the children out, before a federal judge ordered the men to back down; white mobs gathering to protest the introduction of blacks to the school and quickly escalating into riot mode against local police trying to sneak the nine students in; and images of 15-year-old Elizabeth Eckford, like all of her fellow classmates, subjected to cries of “Lynch her! Lynch her!” and then being spat upon as she passed.

Such scenes from Little Rock may seem a world away from ours, especially in a year that has brought America its first president of African-American descent. But when each of the Little Rock Nine was invited to Barack Obama’s inauguration earlier this year, it wasn’t just to help celebrate how far the United States has come as a nation, but also to recognize how their own historic moment helped to bookend a long social and political journey. And the importance of remembering the earlier steps of that journey is driven home as race continues to make hot-topic headlines even as recently as the firestorm provoked by Jimmy Carter’s comments last week.

Enter Toussaint Marcus Moore, the hero of Ed Lacy’s 1957 novel, Room to Swing: a black detective in New York City, framed for the killing of a white man--a “Southern cracker”--who then travels deeper into the heart of the segregation crisis in order to find the truth that might clear his name.

Room to Swing, the first of two books featuring Touie Moore, was published in the same year that the Little Rock Nine took their stand. As much as any stark archival photograph or flickering strip of newsreel, this book stands as a social document of the complex racial politics of that time--and also, importantly, as a dang good mystery, one that in 1958 won the Edgar Award for Best Novel.

In the book, Moore is a down-on-his-luck private investigator whose bread and butter comes from “colored” cases passed along by a former employer who seems afraid to go into Harlem himself: skip-traces, tracking down old ladies late on paying for appliances. But then a big job comes Moore’s way when he’s hired by a publicity rep for a new television show, You--Detective! The program, similar to America’s Most Wanted today, plans to dramatize real-life unsolved crimes and then ask viewers to help nab the criminal. To build drama, the first episode already has its criminal waiting to be hauled in: Robert Thomas (that “Southern cracker”), who was accused of rape and assault back in Ohio six years earlier and who’s now living under an assumed name in New York, as one of the show’s screenwriters has discovered. How do you guarantee great ratings? Air that first episode, then hand-pick a “stooge” to make the collar--proof that any viewer might solve the crime. Moore’s job? Keep tabs on Thomas so that he won’t skip town before the arrest is completed. Moore’s problem? The day after he takes on this assignment, Thomas is killed, and Touie is set up to take the fall. Realizing that he’s in the frame, Moore heads for the victim’s southern Ohio hometown, where he hopes to find evidence confirming his own innocence.

As the novel shuttles back and forth between “Three Days Ago,” “Two Days Ago,” “One Day Ago,” “Now,” and “Tomorrow,” it’s not just the mystery but also the era that comes into focus. Room to Swing opens not in the days leading up to the crime, but after the murder, with Moore in a drugstore in Bingston, Ohio, just over the Kentucky border, flipping through the phone book in search of a May Russell. At this point, we don’t know why he’s looking for her (and it turns out she’s not listed anyway), but the scene’s real drama comes with the entrance of the town policeman, described by Moore as “a stocky middle-aged joker in high-polished black boots, gray breeches with a wide purple stripe down the sides, leather windbreaker with the largest badge I ever saw, and a kind of cowboy hat.” There’s some level of stereotyping here, of course--the cop even calls Moore “boy”--and stereotyping as well in the black mailman who steps in to defuse the situation, an old man whom Moore characterizes several times as an “Uncle Tom.” But this opening leads into a more nuanced portrayal of the town--a border burg where old customs mean more than new laws, but where incremental moves are being taken to fight prejudice and earn blacks equal rights.

In flashbacks to New York, Moore is subjected to racism from each end of the political spectrum, whether from cops who think that the Jaguar he drives must be stolen or from the white New York liberals who frequent jazz clubs and bat around the “Negro question” in earnest but ultimately demeaning ways. Moore’s girlfriend, Sybil--a lighter-skinned black woman--reveals her own racism: she turned down his marriage proposal earlier because he was “too dark.” Meanwhile, Kay Robbens, the TV executive who hired Moore, flirts shamelessly with him, turned on by the idea of sex with a black man; at one point, Moore has to tell her to stop kneading his muscles and “feeling me up like I was a horse.”

(A quick aside: In addition to tackling race issues, Room to Swing also offers a remarkably prescient look at the world of “reality TV,” a phrase that didn’t even come into vogue until many decades after this book was published. Moore’s job for You--Detective! is initially only a small one, but as with exec Robbens’ personal treatment, her publicity engineering in general reveals how easily television manipulated individuals and contorted reality for its own means. As the plot unfurls, we see how little the industry really cared for the individual at the heart of the drama.)

At one point in the depiction of racial confrontations, Moore even has a run-in with Thomas himself, who amps up his Southern accent to throw passive-aggressive taunts in Moore’s direction and then “accidentally” spills coffee on Moore’s sleeve. But while Moore can stand up for himself in New York--flattening the man who will soon show up dead--he encounters more explicit racism as he heads out into rural America and further South. And because causing trouble might expose him to the police who are hunting him, Moore soon finds fewer opportunities to fight back. “I don’t serve no colored here,” shrieks a “moon-faced” woman in one truck stop; and when Moore asks explicitly about the state’s civil-rights law, she replies, “I go by a higher law--God. If God had meant you to be white he would have made us all the same. Now get!”

Ed Lacy, actually the pseudonym for New York-born crime novelist Leonard S. Zinberg, a white man in an interracial marriage, explored race issues often throughout his career. As with other books, Room to Swing doesn’t just catalogue racial troubles but also sets out to explore the roots of those troubles, in this case examining various characters’ attitudes and backgrounds against a larger history of both racial and economic strife. Moore travels to southern Ohio not in flight, but to find out more about the murder victim--believing that the man’s past criminal history might explain why he’d been killed and why Moore has been framed. But instead of amassing a wide array of suspects, each with his or her own motives for murder, Moore instead learns that the man had been “forgotten more than hated” in his hometown. That criminal past, the rape charge, involved an impoverished teenage girl veering into prostitution, suddenly pregnant and desperately needing someone to blame; and while the assault was real, the motives behind it were more complicated than Moore had expected. When Moore interviews the woman’s brother, he hears a long story of social woe: “You understand, May wasn’t any silly oversexed kid out for thrills. Way she saw it she was--well--she was selling her body, but then what does a factory girl do but sell her arms and legs?” And as for the man she accused, now the story’s corpse, the brother himself admits the dead man had been “as trapped by circumstances” as the sister. Further investigations in these lives and others unravel the effects of poverty on each race, and--importantly--its virulent impact on relations between poor blacks and poor whites. And Moore learns something about himself and his own values in this regard.

While we mark today as the anniversary of a tense moment in America’s race struggles, Room to Swing offers a telling glimpse into an earlier era’s harsh social conflicts, one which might still provide perspective today, and embeds it in a terrific suspense tale, one with surprises aplenty still in store. Of all the novels I’ve read in my explorations of Civil Rights Era mystery novels (including the far better-known In the Heat of the Night and The Murderer Vine, recently republished in a striking Hard Case Crime edition), this is the one that keeps coming to mind as unjustly forgotten, especially because it’s not widely available. Keenly observed, smartly structured, and briskly paced, Room to Swing is a classic that that’s definitely worth searching out again.

READ MORE:Stranger Than Pulp Fiction,” by Robert Capshaw (Tablet); “Moment of Untruth - Ed Lacy,” by J.F. Norris (Pretty Sinister Books).

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

I disagree a little with you on this. Race and the social conflicts that race brought into American culture, I found very subdued and limited in the novel. Especially with the majority of the story taking place not in Harlem, but in a rural southern town. The race element is weak. Chester Himes was better penning this in his mystery novels and nothing like it is found here. And as for a detective mystery story, "Room to Swing" was average. It did with the Edgar, but that may have been because Lacy was white and a white author creating a black Private Eye was unheard of in the 50s.

As for Ed Lacy, try "The Men from the Boys" or "Visa to Death" or even "Lead with Your Left." All three are excellent.

Bill K.

artandliterature said...

Thanks so much for your comment. And I agree that Himes ultimately tackles the race issue in a much stronger way -- no doubt about it. Himes, of course, is writing his best work a few years later, and even those few years were enough to change the racial situation and American perspectives on race itself in tremendous ways , meaning that the world in which Lacy wrote this book was different than the world in which Himes penned, for example, Cotton Comes to Harlem.

In that way, I do think that each of these books (to stick with that Himes title) gives its own window into its respective times in some way -- and, importantly, into the ways in which individuals react within those times. While Touie Moore here calls one character an "Uncle Tom," he might himself be accused (from later perspectives) of his own accommodationist tendencies -- tendencies that might have been more prevalent in the late 1950s but that seemed to have run their course by the mid-1960s.

As for the question about Harlem versus the rural South.... I have to admit that I'm not sure why that makes a difference. The South was, of course, the primary battleground of the Civil Rights movement, so it seems like exploring some of the roots of Southern racism might actually be more insightful than limiting the perspective to New York City. If anything, I'd argue the other point: That Lacy hedges his bets by not going *further* south; the Ohio town in Room to Swing is just on the Kentucky border, calling itself not "quite" a southern town and therefore avoiding some of the really difficult topics and scenes that might have been brought up if Touie had needed to travel to, say, Mississippi.

(And in that regard, it's worth noting that John Ball hedged his bets in a similar way, setting In The Heat of the Night in North Carolina. Only in the film version did they move the setting to Mississippi, upping the ante and the stakes tremendously (and reflecting here too a shift from the time that Ball was writing the book to the time the movie was being made).)

Still, thanks so much for responding and for the other recommendations here. Hearing other perspectives is much appreciated! Always nice to have a conversation on these topics.
Art