Race and civil rights in 1963 Los Angeles provide a powerful backdrop in Gary Phillips’s riveting historical crime novel about an African American forensic photographer seeking justice for a friend—perfect for fans of Walter Mosley, James Ellroy, and George Pelecanos.
LOS ANGELES, 1963: African American Korean War veteran Harry Ingram earns a living as a news photographer and occasional process server: chasing police radio calls and dodging baseball bats. With racial tensions running high on the eve of Martin Luther King’s Freedom Rally, Ingram risks becoming a victim at every crime scene he photographs.
When Ingram hears about a deadly automobile accident on his police scanner, he recognizes the vehicle described as belonging to his good friend and old army buddy, a white jazz trumpeter. The LAPD declares the car crash an accident, but when Ingram develops his photos, he sees signs of foul play. Ingram feels compelled to play detective, even if it means putting his own life on the line. Armed with his wits, his camera, and occasionally his Colt .45, “One-Shot” Harry plunges headfirst into the seamy underbelly of LA society, tangling with racists, leftists, gangsters, zealots, and lovers, all in the hope of finding something resembling justice for a friend.
Master storyteller and crime fiction legend Gary Phillips has filled the pages of One-Shot Harry with fascinating historical cameos, wise-cracks, tenderness, and an edge-of-your-seat thrill ride of a plot with consequences far beyond one dead body.
This one was a rich, satisfying read. On the surface, it's the story of one man's meddling in the suspicious death of a friend. But it's a lot more than that, as it provides a detailed exposé of black life in early 60s LA. That life can be perilous, a lot more so when what you are doing brings you in the crosshairs of rich, powerful white men and their paid heavies.
Harry Ingram is a black veteran, a photographer and a process server. He's also his own man, tough, determined and a little bit reckless. Here he needs to be a bit of all three to dig into the death of a friend. It's been been written off as an accident by the LAPD. Ingram isn't so sure and gets to add investigator to his résumé.
I'm guessing Phillips has done his research and some of the events depicted in the book actually happened. Ditto some of the characters mentioned, though my knowledge of black activists in 60s America (or at even any period in time) is limited and undoubtedly some of the references passed me by. In the background to the story we have an impending Civil Rights Rally at Wrigley Field which Martin Luther King will be speaking at. The forthcoming rally adds a layer of tension and excitement to the story.
War comrades and friendship transcending racial boundaries, a death - accidental or not, curiosity into what our friend had been upto, some digging, some dodgy photos, a romance, the Nation of Islam, a couple of persistent heavies, confrontation, violence, and before our conclusion a death or two.
I think I enjoyed the book as much for the investigation by Ingram into his friend's death and the peril that placed him in, as I did for the social and historical context provided. It's tough reading about the cop interactions with innocent black citizens and the brazen unjust treatment that is doled out to them. Billy clubs as negotiating tools don't really serve to advance tolerance and understanding in different communities. At all times Ingram is mindful of where he is and the company he is keeping. Racism in the 60s was a lot less covert and more in your face, than perhaps it is today. Maybe I'm naive. Rodney King, George Floyd and countless others might beg to differ.
Entertaining, educational, and despite the near 60 year old setting, just as relevant today.
The Jook and Monkology as well as Hollis PI - a series of stories featuring (and curated by) Phillips have all been enjoyed a long long time ago. (2014 and earlier)
Read - April, 2022
Published - 2022
Page count - 251
Source - review copy from Edelweiss Above the Treeline
Format - Kindle