In an alternate universe, names like Gar Anthony Haywood and Walter Mosley are known in the same company as those of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. For they too write talented PI characters set in California locations that deal with social issues.
Fear of the Dark is Haywood’s freshman effort and it netted him multiple prestigious writing awards for best first novel, including the Anthony and Shamus awards respectively. He should be better known than he is and yet I hadn’t heard of him until I read his contribution to a round table of black mystery writers that was published in the LA Review of Books.
Of course, a lot of this is privilege. I’m a white guy who reads a lot of white authors. I feel like I’ve made a concerted effort to find more black mystery writers but after reading this, it’s clear I haven’t been trying hard enough. Because Haywood is a good writer. His prose is sharp for a first timer, the mystery was layered but not too much so, and the scenes were well described. Also, a note to other writers: you don’t need to make your books longer just for the sake of adding characters and subplots. This clocked in at a cool 188 pages and though I could guess parts of it, I was still fine with how it resolved itself.
This book is also perceptive on racism and how it affects the characters motivations. Haywood sets the story with an American backdrop of roiling black-white tension. This could very well have been set in the time of Ferguson and it somewhat accurately depicted the mood of Los Angeles leading up to the Rodney King riots, which would happen just four years after this book was published. Haywood’s finger is clearly on the pulse.
My only real problem is the physical treatment of women that Haywood’s lead character Aaron Gunner inflicts. Of course, the male-dominant private eye beating up on women is a tradition that long predates Haywood so it’d be hypocritical to go too hard on him considering Chandler, Hammett, Macdonald, et al. have all had issues with this. But it did affect my reading and while beating women is never necessary to any plot, it’s even worse because the scenes don’t make sense to the character’s motivations at all.
With that in mind, this is still a good novel that’s worth your time if you like LA Private Eye tales. I’ll be pursuing the rest of the series.