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.

THE MAN OF BRONZE

The statue caught my eye.

The man of bronze looked at me, and I heard

on the wind

something singular

that spoke with voices legion.

Voices that had given

much;

their last,

best measure…

“Don’t fall backwards.”

The voice of the few

and the many

implored

“Don’t fall backwards.

Don’t give ground.

Go forward.

More to do.

Much, much, more.”

Much later I would try to convince myself that the man of bronze could not have spoken, the children of bronze could not have watched me with eyes the color of bombed churches and torched buses.

Much later I would try to find security in rational lies. I would try to un-hear what I heard.

But in the midnight hour

Always in the midnight hour

like an old, tired song

I hear them clearly.

With the voice of men

who go down to the sea in ships

and war heroes

swinging from southern trees

they cry

“More, more, more!”

—words and photos copyright 2012 HT

Movie review: HARIMAYA BRIDGE by Aaron Woolfolk

I had mentioned in a previous post some films that you wouldn’t see at a Theater near you, this review is about one such film.

Typically films that don’t make it to your local multiplex, are looked over for reasons having to do with economics of course, but also for less quantitative reasons. Reasons that can best be defined as… a belief in preserving American cultural ignorance. Movies that should make it to theaters but don’t, stagnate largely because Hollywood not only knows how to sell you the staus quo, particularly when it comes to characters of color, but is most comfortable doing just that. The MGM lion, 86 years later, is still surrounded by laughing sambo faces afterall.

So when I get a chance to see a film that has been kept from a larger audience, I am always very enthused. The chance to stumble across a CAPPUCCINO or an EL BENNY and introduce it to others is something I actively seek out. Something I take some… honor, in doing.

One of these hidden films, HARIMAYA BRIDGE I recently got the chance to see in full, thanks to the great folks at ELEVEN ARTS.

It was necessary to sit through HARIMAYA BRIDGE twice for this review. As my initial reaction to it was both odd and conflicted, and I thought this movie, particularly considering the cast, deserved as full a screening as I could give it.

Deserved both a full viewing from me, and a fair and full review. I hope to bring that to you below:

HARIMAYA BRIDGE is a beautiful film. We have to begin there, because that truth is what first struck me. It is a film of pauses and fragments, stillnesses and loss. I was quite enamored of the beginning of the film. Aaron Woolfolk showing early a clear eye and a steady hand. And patience.

And patience.

Unfortunately these necessary traits of the filmmaker are lacking to a troubling, and for me, an unnatural degree in the lead character, Daniel Holder played by Bennet Guillory.

Rarely does a single character color completely my feelings on a film. That happened here, with this film. With Guillory’s Daniel Holder.

Around the 40 minute mark I just couldn’t take anymore of the lead character. He was just too much of an obstinate, arrogant character.

We get into some minor specifics here, nothing standout or essential I think, but if in doubt just jump down to the last couple of paragraphs for the wrapup.

Holder’s character comes to Japan… to take away gifts. I mean seriously taking away gifts?! Really? Who does that? He also manages to call Japanese soldiers evil and is incapable of understanding why they, the Japanese, would revere their military dead as much as any nation. And he spends much of the movie lurching around Japan like a Bull in a China shop, seemingly oblivious to tact, or manners, or common decency, or simple humanity. I mean I get that the whole point of the story… is for the character to have this redemptive arc, but I just felt it was a way too heavy handed and unsubtle film.

I thought it was crafting the character from a false state of melodrama and idiocy, to get to a payoff of reconciliation and understanding.

And that never works, The destination never rings true, if the character fails to ring true.

And the character of Daniel Holden played by Bennet Guillory fails to ring true. I find him, for too much of the movie, a thoroughly ignorant and detestable character. Around the 80 minute mark the Holden character begins to show some humanity and character growth, but it is a case of two little too late. It takes him 90 minutes to come to a conclusion about the paintings that we all see coming 70 minutes ago.

Life is too short for me to spend time with characters I detest in the hopes of getting to like them in the fourth quarter. No thank you. Not my cup of tea. And I’m not saying a film has to be filled with nice characters, but whether good men or bad, I have to believe in their reality, the reality of their viewpoint and stance for me to stick with a film.

I didn’t believe this film.

I like the look of the film, it looks beautiful, and I generally like Woolfolk’s pacing but I think the whole premise of the story, and the near caricature of ignorant bigoted stupidity the father is, is just that, too much of a caricature.

I mean the protagonist stance/views would have been more valid in 1959, in the shadow of World War II, but filmed in 2009, the film just comes off as very late to the game, and slightly dishonest. Particularly considering in 2010 there’s not a city in the US, that doesn’t depend on Japan for their cars, tv, electronics, movies, and much of their jobs.

So for someone to be oblivious to Japan having respect for their dead soldiers in 2010 comes off as utter bs. The character has to be both a moron and a bigot, and that’s not someone I want to waste precious minutes of my life, watching a film about.

So yes, this film has been done by Hollywood, the coming to terms with Japan and World War II many times, only thing is those films were all done between 40 and 50 years ago.

The performances of just about everyone else in the film is great. Misa Shimizu as Yuiko Hara is astonishing, and carries much of the film’s humanity. She is the only thing making the more obnoxious scenes with Daniel Holder’s character remotely palatable. And Danny Glover is always great, and here as the elder brother Joseph Holder, is no exception.

And it touches on themes of Identity and Miscegenation, that is rarely touched on in Japan, outside of the mature films of Takashi Miike. Miike films such as BLUES HARP, CITY OF LOST SOULS, THE BIRD PEOPLE IN CHINA(one of my favorite films) and his BLACK SOCIETY TRILOGY.

However HARIMAYA BRIDGE hinges on following the central protagonist of Daniel Holder, and if you find him a detestable human being for nearly an hour of the films running time, regardless of how you try and do a Scrooge redemption at the end, for me it is too late, Because I’ve soured both on the heavy handed character, and the film that also now feels heavy-handed (one of the flaws with the aforementioned BLUES HARP).

So the film becomes more like a chore to finish, than what cinema ultimately should be, a joy to follow to the end. Bennet Guillory is a strong, imposing presence, and I believe a talented actor, unfortunately the script gives him too little chance to do anything beyond portraying the obstinate and culturally ignorant Black man.

I think Woolfolk is a talented filmaker, in his use of silence and quiet. And I can not stress enough, how absolutely beautiful this film is. Much praise of course must go to cinematographer Masao Nakabori, who grants the film a lush and timeless look, befitting such a fragile and full fable.

I just think the film was severely hurt by the extended and unsubtle portrayal of the protagonist through too much of the film. The film begins strong, and ends strong but the middle is frustrating and unlikeable. I think you could have easily brought this film in at 90 or even 80 minutes, lose a lot of what I disliked in the center, and had a far stronger film.

I definitely would like to see more from Woolfolk, hopefully something far less… forced. Less CRASH like. Overall I have serious issues with HARIMAYA BRIDGE as a whole, but if you can fast-forward through some of its more forced conflict and dialog, it is worth a look.

Indeed I started this review feeling one way about the film, not sure if, given my issues with it that it would be something I would want to add to my DVD collection. But I find it… sticks with me. Some of its images. There’s a lovely bit of stillness that happens particularly in the beginning, something reminiscent of Beat Kitano’s languid static shots, while being its own animal. And for that, quiet filmmaking, it earns a place on my shelf when eventally available on DVD (Check with the distributor ELEVEN ARTS for if and when that happens).

I said at the beginning I was conflicted on this film. It is a flawed film but, in its defense, what works in it… works exceptionally well. And based on this debut, I am looking forward to what the future brings from this Director, as well as from Distributor ELEVEN ARTS.

Grade: C-/D+