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“Polar noir”: Reading African-American Detective Fiction

Alice Mills
Claude Julien

II. Space in the detective novel

Gunner Country: Gar Anthony Haywood’s Fictional World

Claude Julien


Le roman de Patrick Chamoiseau, Solibo Magnifique, dépasse les clivages postcoloniaux entre un petit peuple opprimé et une police terrifiante. Il nous entraîne dans une « mangrove policière », un milieu hybride et contradictoire, aussi bien d’un point de vue linguistique qu’idéologique. La « créolité » élabore ses symboles dans un récit qui transgresse les limites morales et politiques pour dépeindre une société mosaïque, populaire et vivante.

Texte intégral

  • 1 The following abbreviations have been used for textual references: FD for Fear of the Dark, NLTW fo (...)

1When participating in the 2001 symposium on African American detective fiction, in Tours, Gar Anthony Haywood declared that his intent as he set out to write the first volume of the Aaron Gunner series1 had been to bring the geography of Los Angeles to the fore, to create fiction away from the city’s glamorous places by portraying black characters in their own environment.

  • 2 This car is much too visible for a private investigator. Gunner’s often mentioned attachment to his (...)

2The following study was prompted by the wish to take a closer look at the locale of the series —precisely because the city’s presence is constantly felt in the routes Gunner takes, as well as in the locations of homes and places he goes to in his improbable 1965 red convertible Ford Shelby Cobra.2 Locating places, sometimes including street numbers, is a consistent system in the books, not mere make-believe records jotted down in a fictional detective’s notebook. Places and routes bear a meaning for the author, anchor his stories in surroundings he is familiar with —as shown by references to the construction of Freeway 105 that has become convenient in Not Long for This World but used to be a mess of unfinished structures that led nowhere and hampered Gunner’s work ten years earlier (187, 229). Such precision makes for a difficult but rewarding reading for anyone unfamiliar with the city. Difficult because one feels compelled to put the books down to look at a street map; rewarding because an urban maze that tells you next to nothing as you glance at the flat sheet of a street plan takes a human contour on from the books, the weight of social significance.

  • 3 Ernest Gaines’s fiction, rooted in a recreated real place in Louisiana —along the False River betwe (...)

3The notion of setting comprises a mix of geographical location, topography, scenery, in-house arrangements such as windows, doors, furniture, upkeep, etc., as well as the beings that people this world. In the heyday of 19th century realism, setting reigned as a device used to delineate characters. What was not problematic in the days when the regional novel stressed the close bond between individuals and places is contested today. Contemporary literary criticism has grown uneasy with the concept of setting —judged as too limited a vantage point liable to hide the wealth and complexity of literary creation behind the mimetic illusion by suggesting too simple a relationship between characters and their milieus. This objection will be upheld here: setting, or space, is not to be approached as “realistic” (whatever that means in the province of fiction), but as a function in the story it serves3 by providing a frame that speaks to the reader’s imagination. For instance, Gunner’s messy and unbearably hot duplex apartment and each of the places he goes to in Fear of the Dark resonate like a dead-end world for losers, a world way apart from the more diverse and prosperous locale of All the Living Ones Are Dead published eleven years later.

4One can argue for continued interest in settings, if only for the overtones they carry. Location can be the mention of a mere address, or can develop into the sense of a place that lives in the mind. At the beginning of Fear of the Dark, the third person narrator mentions “a cutting wind equal to anything Chicago had to offer” (2). Maybe the reference to the “Windy City” serves as a reminder that Los Angeles’s racial situation is no exception in the country, although it follows its own pattern with mixed communities which Chicago’s racial/ethnic zoning does not offer.

  • 4 As the novel’s title suggests, there is no way mutual hate and defiance between ghetto people and t (...)

5Another reason to take a closer look at Gunner’s Los Angeles is that authorial choice is involved. Indeed, the publication sequence of Gar Haywood’s œuvre supports this assumption. Going Nowhere Fast, that introduces Dottie and Joe Loudermilk trying to get away from their troubleprone family of five, takes Gar Haywood’s fiction on the road after the publication of You Can Die Trying, which can be regarded as a pivotal novel in the Gunner series.4 It is hoped studying Gunner’s space will help bring that out. Although the detective’s investigations remain based in Los Angeles, his circle broadens as the F.B.I. and wealthier individuals step into his workplace. We will see that these subject matter changes correspond to a discursive shift, as the sardonic embittered tone of voice characteristic of descriptions of the environment in the earliest stories becomes more subdued. The oppressive weather (heat, cold or haze) is replaced by comparative sunshine. Descriptions of ghetto scenery become shorter and are joined by more affluent surroundings.

6As we set out to study Gunner’s Los Angeles, first its diversity, then its evolution and, finally, the narrator’s tone of voice, it must be pointed out that reference to Easy Rawlins’s own city will not be sought because it does not invite comparison. Easy’s space constantly reaches out of the ghetto in so far as a greater proportion of white characters are involved that lead the hero’s steps to other places.

7The diversity of Gunner Country is almost impossible to fully account for. It varies from novel to novel depending on the topics, the people involved, and their occupations or homes leading Gunner to different areas. The series takes the reader to a high school in Compton; a gang’s hangout; the offices of two law firms (a black one in You Can Die Trying, a white one in It’s Not a Pretty Sight); the headquarters of a black militant organization; police stations (in South-Central and Beverly Hills), as well as the LAPD Homicide Division; the San Bernardino prison, Central Juvenile Hall; shops; motels, mostly seedy but also a luxurious one; a gym; the Hollywood YMCA on Hudson and Selma; a church in Inglewood where a “gangbanger peace summit” (NLTW, 229) takes place; the Tar Pits museum in La Brea; Huntington Beach where wealthier people with artificial suntans consort; shopping malls in sundry locations; a station service; a tire market; a storefront photographer’s studio; Sisterhood House (a home for battered women); and any number of homes and apartments, many derelict ones, a few of them affluent such as a successful black preacher’s residence in Baldwin Hills. Gunner also takes the reader on a brief visit of the campaign headquarters of a far-right politician (in a failed auto parts outlet “stripped to its bare walls” [FD, 101]), a County Court House, the Los Angeles National Forest (fifty miles north of South-Central), the Inglewood Park Memorial Cemetery; Venice and Torrance; a real estate development in Fontana on route 10, and, to end here a necessarily incomplete enumeration, a gangsta rap recording company’s studio and offices in Burbank.

  • 5 The same applies to characters. We for instance learn Gunner was “booted from the Police Academy” i (...)
  • 6 The bar’s name may carry symbolical significance: it is inspired from a backgammon variation in whi (...)

8Recurring places are consistent from book to book, and take more precise contours as the series develops.5 The Acey Deuce6 recurs in every novel except You Can Die Trying. Crowded or all but empty depending on the time of day and what is playing on the patrons’ home television sets (FD, 1), dimly lit by beer advertisements on the walls and flickering candles, frequently obscured by billows of floating tobacco smoke, cold in winter and unbearably hot in summer, the bar Lilly Tennell becomes the proud owner of is Gunner’s favorite haunt when his credit is good. The series spans about a decade, but the establishment never undergoes any renovation work. It is described at some length twice, first as Fear of the Dark begins and then, much more thoroughly as It’s Not a Pretty Sight, the fourth novel, opens. Comparing the two passages builds the impression the bar (possibly an image for the ghetto) has actually been deteriorating as its furniture is being depicted for the first time. Its cracked mirrors, rickety chairs and torn red vinyl booths shedding their foam padding are far from inviting, but it feels “like home”, has personality and a loyal following in spite “all of Lilly’s smart-ass, sarcastic grunting,” (NPS, 10). The bar houses a local microcosm, people that socialize or, more rarely, oppose each other. Lilly’s and Gunner’s relationship is special. Although they may be unaware of their bond, the Acey Deuce is a place for mutual friendship (Ibid., 9).

9Beyond the sense of continuity under hardship it brings (the Acey Deuce survives with Lilly as an alert business-like owner after her husband’s violent death in Fear of the Dark) the bar also provides a sense of evolving mindsets when Lilly hires Pharaoh Doubleday, a gay employee whom some among her straight customers might disapprove of (WLSA, 107).

  • 7 A long overdue acquisition for a hero relying on information for his work —especially one created b (...)

10Gunner’s ghetto environment is a stable world that looks like an isolated place to which change comes slowly. For instance, the investigator’s operation evolves tardily with a couple of late-coming concessions to modernity when the purchases of a computer7 and a pager (Ibid., 128, 131) are mentioned —not without some self-derision on Gunner’s part that also serves to spoof racial stereotyping:

  • 8 He was looking for an address on his computer. His having only one phone socket available shows the (...)

It was Little Pete.
“Listen here, Gunner,” he said. “When you page somebody, you’re supposed to keep the line clear so they can call you back. Hasn’t anybody ever told you that?”
“Sorry, Pete. I was on-line.”
“I’m a man, brother. Not a stegosaurus. Given time, I can adapt.”
Little Pete laughed, said. “Go ahead on then, black. What can I do for you?”
(WLSA, 130-131)

11Strangely enough, Gunner’s office is only described in more detail (and its appropriateness discussed) in When Last Seen Alive, title number five in the series. Gunner first rents the unoccupied space in the back of Mickey Moore’s barbershop for an office in Not Long for This World (10). We learn the office became even less convenient when it lost its backdoor to the street because that had to be locked and boarded up after five burglaries in two years (NLTW, 209). In short, Gunner’s headquarters is a make-do ghetto-ish place he will not leave in spite of (after his business has risen in more visible social circles) some of his customers’ objections to a lack of confidentiality (ALOD, 24): like the Acey Deuce, the room in the back of Mickey’s shop feels like home. The reader is told in When Last Seen Alive that, still after seven years, only a beaded curtain separates Mickey’s shop from Gunner’s office; that it is sparsely decorated with William H. Johnson prints (a detail that discloses Gunner’s artistic tastes as well as his desire to assert his racial roots through scenes of everyday rural and urban black life). Light is only provided by floor lamps which means no work has been done to improve the room —an indication of Gunner’s apathy and neglect of self for one who has worked as an electrician for his cousin Del. The passive habit of making do with what one has, of not expecting improvement, is confirmed by the furniture —a second-hand desk, a couch and two chairs— “he has started with remained, looking as listless and forlorn as ever.” (WLSA, 9)

  • 9 The ghetto’s ability to suck an individual into deviant behavior is best illustrated by Aired, Gunn (...)

12Showing the different facets of South-Central also means showing urban decay and deficient public conveniences. Vandalized pay phones are mentioned (NPS, 8) as well as directories with missing pages (FD, 69). Gunner is mildly indignant of this when it interferes with his immediate need, but, then, he himself has no qualms about tearing out the pages he needs (NPS, 9; FD, 70). The text makes no comment on this. Out-of-order pay phones and useless phone books are just a fact of life. To some extent, Gunner belongs in the community. He is what the environment he lives in has made him.9

13Los Angeles, “Tinseltown” (FD, 58), is presented right from the start of the series as a place for illusions. Mean Sheila, who has come west from Georgia after serving a prison sentence for killing her pimp, has found an “overcrowded world of has-beens and losers [that] dealt her a devastating blow” (FD, 37). Violence is everywhere, especially in South-Central which is compared to a “shooting gallery” (NLTW, 79). Even parts of Hollywood are eyesores. For instance Townsend’s place Gunner breaks his way into is a “dump”, in an area that is not “the Hollywood of picture postcards.” (FD, 51)

14Apart from a few well-kept yards, mostly lawns and sometimes a few bushes rather than flowers, the cityscapes show little vegetal life. Even unkempt spots, more often than not, consist of bare dirt rather than weeds. Vegetation mostly comes out as a wilderness where to hide corpses. In You Can Die Trying, Gunner is knocked unconscious and carried in a car trunk towards the Hollywood Hills where “dense ragweed” will keep the body from sight (172-173). Other than Elysian Park in whose “heavy foliage” Thomas Seldon’s body is dumped (WLSA, 237), hardly any park or public square is mentioned. Nor are there any open air play grounds or sports facilities. Gunner Country is almost tree-less, even the yard around the Digga’s huge Tudor home in Beverly Hills. This world is also deprived of animal life. No birds, not even common sparrows are seen; no insects, flies, bees or butterflies, on flowers. Strangely enough, homes are roach-free; and only once, in Fear of the Dark, are rodents mentioned, not seen or heard, in Buddy Dorris’s place. The Los Angeles National Forest Gunner goes to in When Last Seen Alive is simply represented as “heavily foliated landscape” (237). The itinerary and the narrow winding road up into the forest are detailed, but, apart from a passing car, there seems to be no life in the area. No animals. Not even a bird chirping, flying or hopping around, a wasp humming, a squirrel running about: just rocky terrain and a dangerous ledge Gunner has to negotiate to reach his car keys left for him to pick up on an unknown body’s burial site. Nature too is dead.

15The series shows little domestic animal life, apart from the canine species. In It’s Not a Pretty Sight, a stray dog is seen “sniffing a lamppost” (217). In When Last Seen Alive (97), Mickey’s employee, Winnie, presents Gunner with a male Ridgeback puppy that apparently becomes part of the hero’s life, although Gunner is never shown feeding or walking the animal. The puppy is mentioned again, when, at Winnie’s and Mickey’s urging, Gunner finally names it Dillett after “a Canadian brother [who] makes Arnold Schwarzenegger look like a little girl.” (127) Obviously, Gunner is no dog lover. Reverend Raines, in Not Long for This World, owns two rottweilers that sit threateningly on either side of Gunner’s armchair. One of them, particularly “antisocial” (243) is ultimately euthanized.

16Gunner’s human environment is mostly black or (mostly in the police force) white. A few exceptions introduce some ethnic diversity. One Cong Pham, a motel clerk, is a Vietnamese in When Last Seen Alive (29). You Can Die Trying, third in the series, once again stands apart as the most ethnically diverse novel. Danny Kubo, Gunner’s former fellow student at the police academy, is a Japanese-American (74); LAPD officer Deanna Lugo is Hispanic (86) and the Huong couple are nice and friendly Korean shopkeepers whose market is targeted by three black vandals not yet in their teens (125, 213-216). You Can Die Trying alludes to the Rodney King affair (51, 92) without really accounting for the complexity of the city’s racial makeup, as the riots targeted Latino and Korean businesses as much as white ones. Apart from You Can Die Trying, It’s Not a Pretty Sight briefly hints at the war Latinos and blacks have been waging against each other for years in the Oakwood section of Venice (30) —which fails to account for the last decade’s intra-city racial migrations, blacks leaving South-Central to new occupants and moving out towards the hilly parts the whites are deserting. However, one can read in When Last Seen Alive a description of the Silver Lake community which, in Gunner’s view is the epitome of Los Angeles as a “capital of schizophrenia”. One will notice in the quotation below that race, sexual mores and age appear in this order. One should also remark the paired oppositions (suggestive of dichotomies) that make up the area’s portrait and lead up into a massive sentence (that opens with in short) full of alliterations that peak out into a disenchanted statement:

It was Caucasian and Hispanic, gay and straight, young and old. It was picturesque, and it was garish; quaint and charming here, plastic and phony there. It had outdoor cafés and 7-Elevens; health food stores and porn shops; three-story Tudor houses that dated back to 1911, and two-story towers of glass that weren’t yet a year old. In short, Silver Lake was a multilingual, multicultural, architecturally diverse community that offered a little something for everybody. Including the dumb and the dumber. (133)

17To a certain extent, the series leads Gunner beyond the ghetto. The first four novels are confined in South-Central Los Angeles. Fear of the Dark is built around a murder organized by a far-right political party to manipulate a black militant group into violence, and takes the reader no further than a derelict area on the outskirts of Hollywood. Not Long for This World revolves around gang violence and a citizen taking vengeance into his own hands. The story moves between two geographical poles: Ted’s Tires, on Main and 137th Street, and Baldwin Hills on the outskirts of the reservoir whose failure caused havoc in 1963. You Can Die Trying mulls over police brutality and attempts to reason on the rioting that had swept the city a year earlier, to understand the fear that provokes the hostility and violence between the police and citizens. As far as places go, the story revolves around the personnel of the Southwest division of the LAPD and ends in a bistro, a traditional afterwork resort for police officers on Figueroa and Flower Streets. It’s Not a Pretty Sight broaches the question of violence against women when Nina, Gunner’s former girlfriend, is shot dead by a ruffian in a case of mistaken identity provoked by a street number that has come unscrewed. Once again, the story crisscrosses South-Central Los Angeles: the murder scene is between Main and San Pedro, a side inquest takes Gunner to Oakwood, and Nina’s murderer is ultimately wounded and arrested in Fontana off interstate 15.

  • 10 “Gangsta rap” first came out on the west coast. Digga Jones, whose death Gunner investigates is no (...)
  • 11 Here are two more contemporary instances: George P. Pelecanos’s Strange is unwilling to commit hims (...)

18Only the latest two titles do take the reader beyond South-Central Los Angeles, if only because the F. B. I. is involved in the cases Gunner investigates. In When Last Seen Alive, Gunner investigates two unrelated cases neither of which involves ghetto people as such: a black City Councilman’s adulterous affair, and the disappearance of a former Chicago journalist (who did not regard himself as black [80]) ordered and paid for by D.O.B. (Defenders of the Bloodline), a militant Muslim organization with national ramifications that undertakes the elimination of black people deemed unworthy of the race. This investigation ends when Gunner exposes the murderer: a white housewife from Chicago living in the Silver Lake community. All the Lucky Ones Are Dead again has Gunner work two unrelated cases. The first hinges on the East coast/West coast rivalry between gangsta rappers10 and takes Gunner among the wealthy in the rap industry and into Beverly Hills. The second brings the D.O.B, terrorists back on the scene through the abduction of a black female conservative radio talk show host, which again brings the F. B. I. in. So, although Gunner never moves far away from downtown Los Angeles, the outside world comes in to disturb and imperil his world. Significantly, the latest two novels take Gunner away from his home city for the first time. Indeed, the prologue of When Last Seen Alive shows him attending the 1995 Million Man March in Washington, D. C., and All the Lucky Ones Are Dead ends with the investigator booking a flight to Chicago to join Yolanda McCreary, the woman he might be ready to enter into marriage with. Does this sound like the approaching end of a career? Maybe, as a well-established tradition11 calls for unattached (though sexdriven) private investigators, but that is at best a reader’s guess.

  • 12 There exists a school bearing such a name. Opening the school’s internet site reveals, among other (...)

19As far as technique is concerned, minimalism is constant from beginning to end. Whatever the importance of a particular character or locale for the plot line, descriptions are brief. Psychological interpretation is abstained from, and descriptions, either of people or places, are limited to salient traits. Terse as they are, notations are to the point and suggest a lot. This can be seen in the short episode when, in Not Long for This World, Gunner visits Centennial High School12 in Compton. On walking into the hall, Gunner asks two students to direct him to the Administration Office. The two girls are briefly accounted for. They are overweight and Gunner appraises them, in his characteristically caustic way, as a man would a woman: were they a few years older, he very much would be attracted to (though minus a few pounds), but definitely not to her companion who is dietetically past help. The two students come to life with a silly adolescent trick that suggests the world is out of joint in this place Gunner has been from the start reluctant to visit because he is impatient of gangbangers and of the reign of indolence, havoc and absurdity to the detriment of education:

They giggled coquettishly upon pointing in opposite directions, then got their act together and charted an accurate course for him to follow, down the corridor to his right, second door on the left. (72)

20The girls’ outfits remain unseen, and so do their faces, their complexions, their hairdos, their eyes, their voices. They are just functional sketches (obesity is the plague of poorer people), that also bring out the generation gap through their (here) smiling insolence.

21The Boys’ Dean who guides Gunner to a classroom where he is to interview Toby Mills’s gang mates is described in more detail suggesting the myopia, lurking danger and conflict in the educational system:

... a middle-aged, stocky black man with a pointed head and tiny eyes, eyes that worked hard to see past the smoked lenses of thick horn-rimmed glasses. He was a standard issue hard-nosed educator in a white short-sleeved dress shirt, and he greeted Gunner’s visit to Centennial as enthusiastically as a mob boss would that of an IRS auditor. (72)

22The school premises are described with the same graphic, but telling economy. Gunner has been taken to a room where the teacher’s mahogany desk and chair are out of place, and whose recent repainting is a valiant but useless effort at hiding the true nature of school life which is underlined by Gunner’s impatience and fear the students he needs to talk to decide to play truant after the lunch break (73):

Room 215 turned out to be a combination English Lit./World History classroom furnished with thirty-four student desks, a teacher’s mahogany desk and chair, and an out-of-round globe of the world with the word fuck emblazoned in red ink across the flatlands of Australia. The olive green chalkboard spanning one wall was similarly decorated, but the walls themselves were spotless and smooth and smelled of fresh paint. (74)

  • 13 The following brief quotation will illustrate this point: “Had he been flat broke, rather than mere (...)

23Before we broach the matter of tone, special attention must be paid to the weather. Rotten, and very much present in the first two novels, fair but virtually absent in the latest two, the weather helps signal a marked change of mood. Information on meteorological conditions in the earlier novels helps construct a negative atmosphere. Fear of the Dark is characterized by an unseasonal heat wave, about which one notes nine salient allusions (2, 7, 47, 67 —with the added remark that the unusual heat causes concern among the ranks of the police—, 72, 83, 129, 136-137, 172-173). Early on, the heat is associated with strong gusts of wind that seem to blow Townsend (the white killer at first falsely introduced to the reader as a musician eager to perform in a club) into the Acey Deuce. The next novel, Not Long for This World, turns towards the other extremes with wind-driven rain (62, 92), cold (a freezing shadow that makes everything “dingier and more depressing than it really was” (90)), and clouds that hide the sun. Though with fewer allusions (37, 130), You Can Die Trying continues in the same vein, mentioning damp grey mist and, again, the cold. Similarly, It’s Not a Pretty Sight, with only one allusion to the weather, also talks of a chilly mist that prevents the sun from burning its way through (153). In short, the early novels mention unpleasant, even hostile weather quite unlike the stereotype one has of Los Angeles, a location precisely chosen by the cinema industry for its clear skies and abundant light. On the other hand, the later fictions, It’s Not a Pretty Sight and All the Lucky Ones Are Dead, fail to use bad weather to evoke a dreary or oppressive mood13 —which does not mean the human scene has in any way turned more amiable in the “City of Angels” (NPS, 153).

24A changed tone of voice seems to somehow parallel the diminishing allusions to an inauspicious weather. The early novels abound with sardonic remarks or disgruntled aphorisms building a negative image of the city, while such remarks and aphorisms are much less visible in the later volumes.

25To illustrate the early manner, one can turn to Not Long for This World and the description of the headquarters of the Los Angeles Peace Patrol, the idealistic group founded by Darreil Lovejoy to eliminate gang violence. As readers first approach the building, they see a cheaply built eyesore from the 1960s, grown rickety and waiting for an earthquake to collapse —a catastrophe mentioned through a discrepant allusion to the Richter scale (very scientific) that clashes with the colloquial phrase describing its inevitable ruin. In spite of the peril, people do hang on there, professionals (a dentist and an otolaryngologist —in theory upper middle class African Americans) attracted by cheap rents they seldom pay. Lovejoy’s former office itself is a place where nothing makes sense, where a plastic cup with some left over coffee serves for an ash tray:

The official home of the L. A. Peace Patrol was a four-story office building that dated back to the mid-1960s, when architects couldn’t get enough of checkerboard facades of cheap plate glass set in unimaginative rows. Whatever had been holding it together all these years was losing its grip, and what must have looked like an Erector Set construction even when it was new, now looked like a death trap waiting for the next blip on the Richter scale to take a nose dive into the street. (...) When they finally made it inside to view the offices beyond the door, nothing about them suggested that the Peace Patrol was getting anything for their monthly rent they weren’t paying for. The carpet throughout was worn and discolored, the walls were in need of paint and repair, and the panels of the acoustic-tile ceiling overhead were either spotted with old water stains or missing altogether. As if to remain true to the overall morose mood of the place, the receptionist’s desk out front was also an abomination; bearing a Styrofoam cup of cigarette ashes floating in a shallow wash of cold coffee, the tattered blotter pad atop it was tattooed with unintelligible names and phone numbers scribbled three layers deep, while the wastepaper basket on the floor beside it was overflowing with trash. (142-143)

26The same mix of factual elements and gallows humor is employed in It’s Not a Pretty Sight, in which the earthquake image recurs (31). Solitary low life white men are also trapped in this world, a dead end for Denny Townsend on a steep street that is “truncated” (a verb carrying overtones of violence and urban zoning) before it reaches into the Hollywood Hills. Though not so very far from Vine Street, it is an utterly derelict place for the poorest among the poor, undocumented immigrants and others that do not officially exist because, as Gunner puts it sardonically, they pay no taxes:

Low-cost, multi-unit dwellings were the rage along this stretch of real estate, packed to and beyond their limit with illegal aliens and others in their general tax bracket. (FD, 51)

27The same tone of voice prevails as the paragraph-long description of Ferris’s living quarters, an assemblage (perhaps an image of the city itself) of mismatched odds and ends concludes the passage:

The living-room was right out of a Grandmother’s Surplus catalog: cheap Indian throw rugs and bland-colored draperies, porcelain knickknacks in waist-high showcases and unreadable books killing time on dusty shelves. An old console TV stood at the center ring, squaring off with an oversized sofa as a listless floor lamp played referee.
The east wing of the Playboy Mansion, it wasn’t.
(Ibid., III)

28Causticity is sometimes found where it is least expected as, for instance, when Buddy Dorris’s apartment is described as too small to share with the rodents that lived there (Ibid., 71); or Pokey’s absurdly daring feat (holding up a fast food outlet opposite a police station, as a test to join a gang) concluded by a play upon words stating the LAPD Southwest Division is in fact located on the southeast corner of Martin Luther King and La Salle, as if nothing, not even basics like cardinal points, made any sense. (YCDT, 41)

  • 14 One must note, however, that home ownership never is brought up by the narrator or by the character (...)

29Frequent as squalor and dereliction are in Gunner’s surroundings, they coexist with more attractive scenes. Indeed, Gunner Country also holds isolated reminders of the past, places of beauty like Sisterhood House in It’s Not a Pretty Sight, homes forsaken by the fortunes that built them (86), now seedy but that still grace the city. Generally speaking, homes are as well-kept as possible, especially where people struggling to assert their middle class status are involved.14 For instance, in You Can Die Trying, the yards, small but mostly well-tended, contrast with the alley, an unkempt public space with dented trash cans, rickety fences and missing lamps over garage doors. (87)

30Looking at the Gunner series as a developing body of work, one notices that the nature and tone of the descriptions change starting with You Can Die Trying which (when the series was resumed after the two Loudermilk volumes) begins to lead Gunner’s steps towards comparatively more affluent backgrounds. Depictions become more factual and the grim humor described above is somewhat muted down. It is still present as Russell Dartmouth’s place is pictured in It’s Not a Pretty Sight (31), but this is very much an exception in this novel where the faded paint and torn screen of Nina’s house give rise to no squib (17). Solemnity is of course to be expected as Nina’s murder is a personal tragedy for Gunner, a moment stirring regretful memories of a good relationship, of an opportunity he wasted. However, the same matter-of-fact tone prevails as the investigator goes up to Agnes Felker’s apartment, a perfect stranger to him:

She lived in a ramshackle apartment building on the northbound side of Martin Luther King Boulevard, about six blocks west of the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Only a few feet from her door on the second floor, what looked like a homeless man was curled up in a ball on the floor at the end of the hall, sleeping soundly. Or dead. The sheets of old newspaper draped over his body in lieu of a blanket made it hard to tell which. (122)

31Similarly, in When Last Seen Alive, Barber Jack’s home (unexpectedly so considering the owner’s life as a single man, also a crazed razor wielder) is neat with a front lawn that makes it look like the home of a grandmother (66), and an appropriately furnished interior where Gunner finds nothing out of the ordinary (67). Fact overtakes sarcasm in the depictions in the later novels. As for instance that of the Keene home, also in When Last Seen Alive: Gunner remarks the perspective on the city to be enjoyed from the heights. He then finds the house quaint and old-fashioned, to be sure, but meets the owner sipping ice tea on a deck patio, “watching sunlight shimmer off the water in the reservoir below” (136): quiet, pleasant circumstances devoid of ironical remarks or, indeed, any social comment on well-to-do people. Similarly, the Carlton Elbridge estate in All the Lucky Ones Are Dead, the kind of place only lavish money can buy, is depicted in a low-key fashion: the ornate stone fountain gracing the front lawn (92) carries no sour grapes of envy on Gunner’s part.

32As our brief tour of Gunner Country comes to a close, a few aspects call for highlighting. First, the graphic and suggestive descriptions of the setting are far removed from the ambitions of realism. The space that the series create lives in the mind, just like Gunner knows Los Angeles in his bones, in the tread of his Cobra’s tires. There is no real need for him to look at the road to know where he is. Listening to the “white concrete’s black tar repairs playing a staccato beat against rubber ” (FD, 70) is enough for him and he reflects this betrays the place of South-Central in the hearts of City Hall politicians (FD, 71). Beyond politics, race is, underlined as it is by the pavement’s color dichotomy, the passage’s main point. To one used to the ghetto like Gunner, there is no need to open one’s eyes. One can hear and feel the ghetto sitting on one’s car seat.

33Second, the later volumes in the series abandon much of the sardonic gallows humor of the early stories. One could speculate the world view of the series was influenced by, or reacted to, the fictional black private investigators that followed Gunner’s 1988 lead; but events in the city, the extent of the 1992 upsurge against police brutality, may have been more instrumental in the emergence of a more sedate tone of voice: this is suggested by the fact that You Can Die Trying reads like a pivotal fiction which bravely, if not always gravely, discusses the vicious circle of racial hate and fear in the exchanges between Gunner and (white) Sergeant Kupchack (35-37, 43-53, 206-210). Nothing comes out of Gunner’s good will towards the force, only the policemen’s laughter when he leaves the café. However, the book ends on Gunner’s promise to himself he is not going to give up reforming young Gaylon Brown: a self-assigned task he follows through in It’s Not a Pretty Sight when he gruffly teaches the youth respect for women.

34Third, beyond the tonal changes we have outlined, the series reflects a (hopelessly) disjunctive world in so far as the cases Gunner investigates reveal (through the senseless violence exemplified by characters like Pearsons and Dartmouth in It’s Not a Pretty Sight or Brother Jack in When Last Seen Alive) a world trapped in absurdity and violence —whether one looks at racial relationships or rapport within the black community. Absurdity and violence in black and white open the series with the Brothers of Volition’s naïve vengefulness that turns them into unsuspecting instruments in the hands of bigoted white politicians, and ultimately into kamikaze bombers. Black-onblack absurdity and violence hover over the latest title in the series with a “tough” gangsta rapper he-man (in fact a sensitive young man in private) committing suicide after a visit of his petulant wife he has just cheated upon. This marital strife, however, is topped by a murderous scheme the Digga’s suicide made useless: Teepee (the right-hand man of his rival from the east coast, 2DaddyLarge) had conceived the plan to eliminate the Digga by infecting him with AIDS and advertising his cheating with prostitutes to his wife... Three deaths result from this crooked trick elaborated in a sick mind that takes rap fiction for reality.


Works Cited

The Gunner series:

Haywood, Gar Anthony. 1990 (-1988). Fear of the Dark. New York: Penguin Books.

— 1991 (-1990). Not Long for This World. New York: Penguin Books.

— 1994 (-1993). You Can Die Trying. New York: Penguin Books.

— 1996. It’s Not a Pretty Sight. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons.

— 1999 (-1997). When Last Seen Alive. New York: Berkley Prime Crime.

— 1999. All the Lucky Ones Are Dead. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons.

The Loudermilk volumes:

— 1994. Going Nowhere Fast. New York: Putnam.

— 1995. Bad News Travel Fast. New York, Putnam.


1 The following abbreviations have been used for textual references: FD for Fear of the Dark, NLTW for Not Long for This World, YCDT for You Can Die Trying, NPS for It’s Not a Pretty Sight, WLSA for When Last Seen Alive, and ALOD for All the Lucky Ones Are Dead. All the references between brackets below are to the editions specified in the works cited section.

2 This car is much too visible for a private investigator. Gunner’s often mentioned attachment to his vehicle can be interpreted as an oblique comment on American society. Bequeathed to him in Vietnam by “some reckless red-neck kid fresh from the sands of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina,” the car is a legacy from absurdity, sour memories of his tour of duty (FD, 16,49-50).

3 Ernest Gaines’s fiction, rooted in a recreated real place in Louisiana —along the False River between Oscar and New Roads (St. Adrienne and Bayonne on the St. Charles River in fiction), is a case in point A metaphor imposes itself that turns this forsaken rural area into an ideal place for fiction, a battleground overshadowed by the past where blacks are seeking to build a place for themselves. This “false” river is not as static as it looks. The river gone to run elsewhere still feeds the stretch of water, inequality still haunts the locale when the pleasure boating richer whites disturb the fishing that means subsistence for local blacks. One may be tempted to read more into this setting. The mighty Mississippi that no longer runs there may be apprehended as the representation of a society that has left black people in the lurch. While no explicit textual statement supports this, the reader can draw the inference.

4 As the novel’s title suggests, there is no way mutual hate and defiance between ghetto people and the police can be overcome. Even without inside information on the writing time frame, the shift from Gunner’s Los Angeles to the Loudermilks’Airstream trailer (and back to Los Angeles two volumes later) suggests that after the very topical You Can Die Trying, the author may have felt a need to take his stories to other places.

5 The same applies to characters. We for instance learn Gunner was “booted from the Police Academy” in Fear of the Dark (16) and only learn the reasons for his dismissal (punching a racist instructor in defense of Kubo, a Japanese American fellow-student) in You Can Die Trying (74).

6 The bar’s name may carry symbolical significance: it is inspired from a backgammon variation in which a throw of a one and a two has special value, which takes both Gunner’s work as a private investigator and the lives he interacts with into the realm of games of chance.

7 A long overdue acquisition for a hero relying on information for his work —especially one created by a former computer technician. There may be another aspect: the implied idea that the ghetto is a backwater and that it takes technology a long time to reach into it.

8 He was looking for an address on his computer. His having only one phone socket available shows the limits of Gunner’s modernity.

9 The ghetto’s ability to suck an individual into deviant behavior is best illustrated by Aired, Gunner’s nephew, a successful drug dealer in It’s Not a Pretty Sight turned investor in the gangsta rap recording industry in All the Lucky Ones Are Dead — while remaining in touch with the underworld.

10 “Gangsta rap” first came out on the west coast. Digga Jones, whose death Gunner investigates is no OG (original gangster), but a well-meaning young man who cheats on his wife. That Haywood’s novels are steeped in contemporary life is a case in point here. This story takes its cue from the deaths of Tupac (west coast) and Notorious Big (east coast) that occurred six months apart in 1997 and were heavily reported in the media. Even the fictitious name 2DaddyLarge conjured up the real-life rapper’s name “Notorious Big”. Bume, who operates his record company from jail in the novel may impersonate real life entrepreneur Suge Knight.

11 Here are two more contemporary instances: George P. Pelecanos’s Strange is unwilling to commit himself to marriage in Right as Rain (2001), but tries to steer Janine’s son into proper behavior. Valerie Wilson Wesley’s Tamara Hayle is a divorced and dedicated mother of one.

12 There exists a school bearing such a name. Opening the school’s internet site reveals, among other information, that teachers with full credentials represent 63% of the staff as compared to 88% statewide (Sep. 2003 data.)

13 The following brief quotation will illustrate this point: “Had he been flat broke, rather than merely reluctant to live on his savings until his next gig, things might have been different. But he wasn’t. For a few weeks, at least, he was solid. So he put Wally Browne behind him, pushed his bubbling red Cobra north to South-Central along the California sun-soaked 405, and kissed Browne’s retainer check good-bye, with only a modicum of lingering regret.” (ALOD, 11)

14 One must note, however, that home ownership never is brought up by the narrator or by the characters — except Lilly Tennell when she mentions a rundown market her husband, J. T., “God bless the fool,” she says, had unwisely bought (FD, 156).


Teaches American Studies at Université François-Rabelais de Tours. He is the author of a Thèse de Doctorat d’Etat on childhood and adolescence in African American fiction, 1853-1969. A founding member of CEAA and a member of CAAR, he has contributed a number of papers on the African American literary and social fields. He has co-edited a collection of essays on Cane. He has recently edited a GRAAT journal celebrating Michel Fabre as well as a Callaloo number on John Wideman. He is currently preparing a collection of essays on Percival Everett.

© Presses universitaires François-Rabelais, 2005

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