Written by Clarence Cooper Jr — There aren’t many books that grab you from the first line and don’t let go. There are even fewer books that repulse you from the first line, making you want to throw the book away immediately. The Syndicate somehow manages to do both. From the opening line – “Anyone could tell at first glance that Brace Lilly was a fairy.” – you can tell that The Syndicate hasn’t aged well. It was written in 1960, long before political correctness, when you could say that kind of thing and get away with it. It’s no wonder sometimes that the works of Clarence Cooper Jr have fallen out of publication.
That’s not to say The Syndicate doesn’t have some redeeming features, it does – quite a few. Cooper’s in-depth look at drugs and crime in 1950s and 60s America earned comparisons to beat author William S Burroughs and hardboiled pulp crime author Jim Thompson. The plotting of The Syndicate is not quite Burroughs-level stream of consciousness, yet the comparison to Jim Thompson’s relentless pulp style is more apt. The Syndicate tells the story of Andy Sorrell, an enforcer, a strong-arm man sent to the West Coast from New York to retrieve syndicate money. The fictional city of Hollisworth, somewhere between Los Angeles and San Francisco, belongs entirely to The Syndicate, meaning Sorrell has to tread carefully as he tries to find out where the missing $500,000 has gone. Sorrell is looking three men who were meant to have double-crossed the syndicate and split the loot. He finds them one-by-one and tries to get each of them to cough up the location of the money.
The Syndicate is full of double-crosses, shifty characters and a whole lot of blood. There’s not a single character in these 140 short pages that you’d want to encounter in even the most well-lit of alleys. Other than the crude pulp style, the novel’s other main disappointment is that it doesn’t deal with the issue of race head-on. Clarence Cooper Jr was seen by some as a kind of Civil Rights era African-American hero, but in The Syndicate the racial dimension is only implied, never explored. We’re not even sure what race the main character is, although this may be deliberate. I much prefer Chester Himes’ Harlem series or novels featuring black cops Gravedigger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson, which deal explicitly with race relations at that time.
The Syndicate was originally published under a pseudonym, deemed too scandalous and damaging for the author’s literary career, such as it was, and it is only its status as a historical artifact that allows it to come out again now. If this was a novel by a debut author, even an underground pulp author, it probably would not be published today. It’s just too shocking, with too much gratuitous violence and sex, to be acceptable as anything other than an artifact of a time when the world was a lot different. Clarence Cooper Jr was a lifelong heroin addict, spent a good deal of his life in prison, and as a result fell out of favour with publishing houses before his fame could really blossom. Few of his other works are available, and perhaps there is a good reason for this.
CFL Rating: 3 Stars