Los Angeles-based author Gary Phillips has been writing crime in a variety of styles and media for nearly 30 years. I can remember reading about his black PI, Ivan Monk, in books such as Violent Spring in the late 90s. He’s since branched out into editing anthologies as well as writing short stories and graphic novels, and we interviewed him and Crista Faust in 2018 about Peepland, the comic they co-wrote for Hard Case Crime. His stories tend to be gritty and urban, giving voice to the disenfranchised and marginalised of American society.
His latest novel keeps to this template in one sense but deviates from it in another. The setting is the Harlem Renaissance, which took place in the 1920s and was a new expression of thought and creativity among African Americans. As you would expect, it features predominantly Black characters and allows plenty of room to show to express this fascinating period in black history. However, the book’s title reveals its pulp-inspired nature, and the grittiness of Phillips’ previous writing is exchanged for suitably fantastical plotting and outrageous set pieces.
In real life Matthew Henson was a pioneer and explorer who travelled throughout the world first as a sailor then on expeditions. He made several trips to the Arctic in search of the geographic North Pole and had a claim to be the first man to reach it. His achievements were belatedly recognised and he was inducted in to The Explorers Club in 1937, and was later honoured by Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower.
His true life was fantastical enough and the author wisely avoids giving him the trappings of the golden age superheroes which his role in the story mimics. Henson wears no mask or cape, but working man’s clothes and his base is a modest apartment rather than a gothic manse. But this is pulp and the author introduces his protagonist by having him grapple down the outside of a New York apartment building before smashing his way inside before dispatching two of Dutch Schultz’s goons with an ice pick and a throwing star.
The girl he has come to rescue, Destiny, is the daughter of a prominent black preacher who likes to be known as Daddy Paradise. Paradise is selling a vision of black empowerment, and making himself rich in the process. (Phillips doesn’t shy away from showing the grubbier side of the civil rights movement). This has made him a target for the white establishment, whether they be organised crime, big business or the federal government. So kicks off an adventure, the finer points of which are sometimes a little hard to follow. It takes in the emerging science of quantum physics, experimental planes and mysterious radioactive asteroids, and is peopled by such historical figures as Nicola Tesla, Stephanie St Clair and Bessie Coleman.
It ends fittingly enough with a battle for a death ray high in the sky above New York City. In between, the novel is often thrilling, and frequently humorous and sexy. It’s entertaining throughout, and its subtle focus on injustice gives it an added depth not necessarily expected in a story of this kind.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars