Friday, September 30, 2011

The Book You Have to Read:
“Shaft Among the Jews,” by Ernest Tidyman

(Editor’s note: This is the 117th installment of our ongoing Friday blog series highlighting great but forgotten books. Today’s pick comes from Steve Aldous, who works in the British banking industry and has written a number of well-received short stories. His tale “Lightning Never Strikes Twice,” an affectionate parody of the pulp private-eye novels of the 1940s and ’50s, was recently a finalist for the Writer’s Forum short-story competition. The character of John Shaft provided inspiration for his first full-length novel, the recently completed Poisoned Veins, featuring black Manchester-based private investigator Joe Gibbs. A second book, provisionally titled Gibbs and the Human Traffickers, is already in the works [and looking for publishing interest]. Aldous lives with his wife and two sons in Bury, Lancashire, UK. He also has a daughter and granddaughter.)

I have a tremendous fondness for Ernest Tidyman’s Shaft series, which I read as a fairly innocent teenager in the mid-1970s. The uncompromising character of John Shaft--a tough, black New York City private eye with a mean attitude--provided sheer escapism for me during my school years. The mix of violent action, sex, and hard-edged dialogue kept me coming back for more, until the series reached an abrupt end with its seventh entry, The Last Shaft, in 1975.

But, perhaps surprisingly, it was the 1973-1974 American TV series, and not the films (which I was too young to go and see), that switched me onto the character. I used to tape the episodes of Shaft on audio cassette (long before the days of even VHS) and play them back religiously, so I could recite every line of dialogue and anticipate every gunshot. I was, therefore, surprised at how much more abrasive, arrogant, and downright mean Tidyman’s creation was in the books.

I didn’t read those novels in sequence; in fact, the first one I read was Shaft Has a Ball (1973), which was actually the fourth in Tidyman’s series. I then caught up with the previous three and read the rest in sequence as they were released. I remember taking a monthly trip by bus to Bolton and hastily making for W.H. Smith’s, hoping to find a new book in the series on the shelves. The only one I missed the first time around was Shaft’s Carnival of Killers (1974), which for some reason quickly disappeared from the bookstores. I caught up with it (albeit the U.S. Bantam edition) 13 years ago, after I was introduced to the wonderful world of the Internet.

Shaft Among the Jews--in my opinion, the best entry in this series--is the follow-up to Tidyman’s Shaft (1970), and was published in hardback in June 1972. That was one year after the release of the phenomenally successful movie starring Richard Roundtree and just ahead of the sequel, Shaft’s Big Score!. I think it is fair to say it was the success of the film, rather than Tidyman’s original novel, that led to him extending the series of books.

By the second novel’s release, Roundtree was very much the public image of John Shaft. This influence can be seen in the painted paperback cover illustrations. In the novels, Shaft had no mustache, and it is interesting that the U.S. and UK editions of Shaft Among the Jews both use the same cover painting, but for the UK cover a mustache was added to Shaft. Despite Roundtree’s presence in the role, Tidyman continued to write the Shaft character true to his original outline.

Shaft Among the Jews sees Shaft facing off against a team of crooked diamond merchants, who are using an old Jewish diamond cutter’s secret formula to create synthetic diamonds. Also involved here are members of the Israeli Secret Service, secretly operating in Manhattan, who want both the formula and the diamond cutter back. Shaft is caught in the middle, and the story builds to a satisfying climax.

It is a more-than-worthy continuation of the series, and whilst Tidyman adopted a more traditional crime-thriller plot here, he manages to exude a style, wit, and viciousness in his writing that takes the reader right along with him. It is his penchant for highly descriptive prose, often using exaggerated metaphors, that lends the action a unique style and grace. Although the style could sometimes be confusing if you weren’t on Tidyman’s wavelength, it carried a good dose of dark humor and sharp, quotable dialogue.

A small stable of supporting characters, all of whom were introduced in the original Shaft novel, appear in a number of the books. Principal amongst these is Shaft’s “friend” from the New York Police Department’s 17th Precinct, Lieutenant Vic Anderozzi. He and Shaft engage in numerous exchanges of one-upmanship, and their friendship is built more on mutual respect than any closer personal bonding. Rollie Nickerson is a part-time actor/part-time bartender at the No Name Bar, but primarily a drinking buddy who is on hand to provide the odd favor. Shaft’s childhood friend, Ben Buford (Shaft and Shaft Has a Ball), has become a political activist with a race-based agenda, and his friendship with Shaft has cooled somewhat. In fact, John Shaft isn’t really close to anyone in any of these books, with the possible exceptions of his accountant, Marvin Green, and Marvin’s wife, Helen, who is perhaps Shaft’s only Platonic female friend. The Greens’ domestic happiness provides a stark contrast to the violent and unpleasant world Shaft normally inhabits.

The sleuth’s girlfriend in Shaft Among the Jews, Amy Taylor-Davis, is seen as a pain in the ass who wants to remodel his life. This leads him to reach out to the vulnerable Cara Herzel, the old diamond cutter’s daughter, who is in the city looking for her father. His fondness for Cara is evident in the book’s finale and represents the only time in the series where Shaft seems to see women as anything other than recreational. It is these deeper explorations of Shaft’s psyche that make this second book stand above its successors, and the complexity of its plot that places it above even the original.

Later books in the series would become more formulaic, but remain fun. Shaft was taken out of New York for 1973’s Goodbye, Mr. Shaft (set in London) and 1974’s Shaft’s Carnival of Killers (Jamaica), before returning to the Big Apple for his big finale in The Last Shaft.

Whilst I love all three motion pictures based on Tidyman’s protagonist, and still have a fondness for the diluted TV series, it is the books that I treasure the most--and Shaft Among the Jews stands as the best representation of the series and a recommended read for any enthusiast of the tough private-eye genre.

I hope someday a sympathetic publisher will see the potential in bringing these books back into print, and open them up to a new readership.


Kevin Burton Smith said...

I can dig it.

Max Allan Collins said...

Warner Archives has released the SHAFT TV movies as a set, and they are much better than they're cracked up to be -- and Roundtree is great.

There is a strong possibility that Tidyman did not write all the Shaft books himself. My hunch is he did the books that came out in hardcover, and left the paperback originals to ghosts.

John said...

Very cool. Never knew there were a series of Shaft books.

I especially liked reading that someone of my generation did exactly what I did back in the 1970s: used an audio tape recorder to preserve TV shows. I remember taping shows like Barnaby Jones, McMillan and Wife, Columbo, The Snoop Sisters, Ellery Queen (with Jim Hutton) and several made-for-TV movies like "Killdozer!" and "The Elevator."