Rudolph Fisher, Len Zinberg, Ed Lacy’s Toussaint Moore and ‘credible’ Black Detectives

Ed Lacy was the pseudonym for Leonard S. Zinberg, a writer with a prolific career from the 1930s through to the 1960s. His moniker of Ed Lacy was picked up in the wake of his return from World War II, and most mentions of this writer take into account only his post 1950s ‘Ed Lacy’ titled work, ignoring quite an abundant career under his own and at least one other pseudonym.

For the sake of this article we’ll use the names Lacy/Zinberg interchangeably to discuss all his work. Because the same thread of conscience and passions are in his work throughout his career, and throughout his pseudonyms.

What separates Leonard (Len) Zinberg’s pulp fiction is his social conscience. A lifelong jazz lover, humanist, activist, and socialist, in addition to just thrilling fiction he also wrote on the social injustices of the day, even decades prior to donning the Ed Lacy moniker. His explosion on the pulp/mystery scene was an outgrowth of returning from the war to an America and a world, forever changed by atrocities human and atomic, and his need to support his family.

Being in a mixed marriage, a lover of Harlem night life, and a fixture of the music, literary and boxing scenes there, Zinberg’s mystery novels had an authenticity that many lacked. Like Chester Himes, he could speak on more than the tropes of the private eye medium, but use the medium to touch on larger insightful and incisive examinations of America.

In addition Leonard’s work was respected by some of the standout writers of the day, including voices as august as Ralph Ellison, who saw in Leonard’s writing someone with keen insight into the conditions and quality of Black life in America.

This is what Ralph Ellison had to say in 1940 about Leonard’s first novel WALK HARD, TALK LOUD-

“For several years Len Zinberg, a young white writer, has been producing short stories that reveals an acute and sympathetic interest in the Negro’s problems. In his first novel, WALK HARD, TALK LOUD Mr. Zinberg tells the story of a Negro Prize fighter. The writer is far more successful than most writers who approach Negro life from the outside, even those who command more art (Ernest Hemingway, for example, from whom Zinberg has learned much)…WALK HARD, TALK LOUD is an exciting first novel with plenty of action and suspense. Len Zinberg indicates how far a writer, whose approach to Negro life is uncolored by condescension, stereotyped ideas, and other faults growing out of race prejudice, is able to go with a Marxist understanding of the economic basis of Negro personality. That plus a Marxist sense of humanity, carries the writer a long way in a task considered extremely difficult: for a white writer to successfully depict Negro character.”
—Ralph Ellison, New Masses 17 Dec 1940

A prolific writer Leonard wrote numerous novels and hundreds of articles and short stories, however Zinberg is one of many writers whose work has all but been scratched from history, due in part to his socialist ties. A victim of the age of the red scare, his work has been little adapted, and has been largely out of print for decades. Though the rise of Ebooks are allowing this author and his body of work to start to reach a new generation, in an affordable manner.

Indeed to illustrate his new visibility, it’s become commonplace on the Internet to credit Ed Lacy with writing the ‘first credible Black PI’ for his Toussaint M. Moore character that appeared in 1957s ROOM TO SWING.

The only problem with that assertion is… it’s incorrect.

People online simply parroting an uninformed comment posted first, seemingly, on the MysteryFile website, and picked up by those who are perhaps a bit too lazy or too unprofessional to do due diligence to verify their borrowed ‘truths’.

Here’s the thing ‘First credible Black PI’? What exactly is that supposed to mean? Lacy/Zinberg didn’t create the first Black PI, credible or otherwise. Credible, seemingly code for ‘it was created by a White person’.

Being a bit facetious there, but the point is there were quite a few Black PI characters, by Black writers prior to Zinberg’s addition to the field..

Most notably Rudolph Fisher’s character of Dr. John Archer appearing in 1932s THE CONJURE MAN DIES:A MYSTERY TALE OF DARK HARLEM, which given Leonard’s interests he was probably very familiar with, and a fan of, before embarking on his own writing career.(no doubt not ‘credible’ because Archer in addition to solving crimes in his off time, is a Doctor? Hate to break it to you… you being the ‘credible’ crowd, but the Black gentleman who wrote the character of Dr. Archer was in addition to being a writer, also a Radiologist, and a Musician. He was if anything, more extraordinary than his fictions)

Rudolph Fisher, who’ll I’ll be doing an upcoming post on, was a true renaissance man, in his short life. The 1920s seeing the blooming of many a brilliant man of color, and Rudolph Fisher, a guiding light of the Harlem Renaissance, was certainly one of the pivotal figures of the 20s and early 30s.

So I just wanted to clear up that ‘credible PI’ comment. Which is really just denigrating double-speak for, ‘we’re going to give you (Zinberg- a socialist we don’t like anyhow) a backhanded compliment, and at the same time disparage Black writers who came before you because, they are Black and we don’t think anything they write is credible”, it’s just a staggeringly brain-dead comment, that insults Zinberg and writers as varied and acclaimed as Rudolph Fisher.

Preserve us from moronic catchphrases taken up by parrots; I’m reminded of the catchphrase ‘refugees’ that was on every newscasters teleprompter during Katrina. It just shows that we are perhaps more a propaganda nation, in line with Germany of the 30s, then we choose to recognize or admit. The bane and death of a free society, being a compromised mass media.

Okay, having taken umbrage with that comment and shot it in the heart, as it so richly deserves, let’s get back to Zinberg proper. By all means read the works of Leonard Zinberg/Ed Lacy and enjoy them, there is much to enjoy and he deserves to be rediscovered. But he deserves discovery not for the bs reasons the lazy and bigoted try to coin, but for the real reasons of he was a gifted writer, with a real social conscience, and something to say about folly and fools.

And surviving them.

Here’s an excerpt from his 1957 Edgar Award Winning novel ROOM TO SWING:

1
I BROKE par in Bingston. It’s a little town of a couple of thousand in southern Ohio and you can take in the entire town in about three minutes. It took me less than a minute to learn all I wanted to know—that I’d made a mistake coming here.

The main drag looks bigger than it should because they get a lot of trade from nearby farms. I parked my car in front of the largest store—a drugstore—and went in. The few people passing stared at me like I’d stepped out of a flying saucer. Okay, even though my Jaguar is an eight-year-old job I picked up for six hundred bucks, any foreign heap attracts attention. A fact which was worrying me nuts at the moment; attention was the last thing I needed.

I was a positive sensation inside the store—everything stopped dead still. The fat soda jerk stared at me with disbelief, a guy having breakfast at the counter spun around, toast in mouth, and made big eyes, the druggist was getting some mail from an old Negro postman and they both looked startled. It was a well-stocked place, more like a general store. I saw the phone booths and walked over. The Bingston phone book is about the size and thickness of a Broadway theater program. There wasn’t any May Russell listed.

Figuring there had to be more to the phone book than this booklet, I started toward the soda jerk to ask. He reacted like a ham actor, his round face showing horror, then a fat grin of relief as he glanced at the door. I turned to see a cop coming at me, coming fast. Some small-town cops sport musical-comedy uniforms. This one was a stocky, middle-aged joker in high-polished black boots, gray breeches with a wide purple stripe down the sides, leather wind-breaker with the largest badge I ever saw, and a kind of cowboy hat. There wasn’t any doubt as to why he was coming; his gun was loose in its holster and he was actually holding a billy in his right hand. I didn’t see how they could be looking for me so soon, but my stomach began turning somersaults. I got set; if I could flatten this cop and make the door I was safe.

The mailman was suddenly in my way, both hands on my right fist as he whispered, “Relax, son.”
“Get out of my face!” I said, pulling my hand away. The cop was on top of us. The mailman nodded at him and said, “Hello, Mr. Williams.”

“Hello, Sam. Anything for me?”
“I left a few letters at your office,” the postman said, still blocking me.
The cop asked me, “Stranger in town, boy?”
“Yeah.” I’d been called boy more times in the last half a dozen hours than in my whole life.
“That’s what I thought. I’d better explain a few things to you.”

“What things?” I said, my eyes on his billy hand. I pushed the mailman out of the way but the damn fool stepped right back in front of me.

“What you doing here, boy?”

“Looking in the phone book. That against the law?”

“Nope. I thought maybe you was thinking of eating in here. Being new, maybe you don’t know it ain’t the custom for colored to eat in here.”

I got a little mad and I relaxed, almost sagged with relief. I was still in the clear. The crazy thing that stuck in my mind was that this cop had a kind face, and if anything, he was talking very gently —with the billy ready for action. I told him, “I wasn’t planning on eating the phone book.”

— ROOM TO SWING by Len Zinberg (witing as Ed Lacy) 1957
Room To Swing: Only a Few Copies left in stock. Price your copy here!

It’s a good place to start, but definitely don’t neglect Zinberg’s other work, including his pre-war time stories and novel.

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