By Gary Phillips
WriteWay Books – October 2000

ISBN: 1-885173-64-4 - Hardcover
Mystery / PI - Detective / African American

Reviewed by: Reed Andrus, MyShelf.Com
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To set the record straight from the beginning, what you are reading is a review of the fourth book in a series featuring African-American private eye Ivan Monk, written by a relatively liberal whitebread honky resident of Texas. Maybe that’s why I kept feeling twinges of guilt as I followed Monk from Los Angeles to Mississippi in search of a killer – a natural acceptance of time-honored blame for all the racist actions committed by past and present Caucasian peers. Or maybe those occasional winces were caused by the natural storytelling ability of an author whose background includes time spent as a union organizer and political activist, a man whose strength of social consciousness permeates is book and actually overwhelms the mystery elements.

The mystery involves the death of Monk’s cousin, Kennesaw Riles, a former star in the Negro Baseball League. Riles was something of a… er, black sheep in Monk’s family, having testified against a black political activist many years earlier. Murder is declared when an autopsy finds an excessive amount of heart medicine in the old man’s blood stream. Monk’s mother, Nona, becomes a prime suspect, forcing Monk, who is digging around the man’s life just out of curiosity, to step up his pace. The investigation meanders on- and off-stage, in some places taken over by Monk’s mother paired with an ex-cop buddy. The author distributes a requisite number of red herrings for the characters to follow, all of them interesting from an historical or socio-economic viewpoint.

Nearly every page in this book delivers a bit of a social commentary, sometimes delivered with lyrical force, sometimes with an unfortunate clunkiness while trying to make a point. Here’s an example. You decide which description fits.

“Later, at night, he sat on the enclosed porch with Malus Locke, the farmer who rented out the land his mother owned in Mound Bayou. The town had been settled after slavery. In reverse of the usual white municipalities practices, the officials of Mound Bayou had turned down federal aid in the old days so as to not be forced to meet Washington’s standards of integration, and thus keep the city’s political infra-structure black.”

On the whole, I enjoyed the tale well enough to buy one of the earlier books in the series.  While I wouldn’t label Phillips as a hard-boiled writer, he certainly doesn’t write cozies. There was enough grit and violence (and leisurely reference to various sexual appetites) to maintain my interest when the plot threatens to become polemic. His characterizations ring true, albeit referenced from my position as a polar opposite; Monk and his extended family are realistic, enjoyable creations, and the author’s writing style is sufficient to carry the day.

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