Steve Aldous readily admits that he wrote The World of Shaft “very much from the point of view of what I would want to know being a fan.” Which is just fine with me, man. This cat John Shaft and I go way back.
After being introduced to that supercool, African-American New York City private eye via the 1971 motion picture Shaft, with its kick-ass Isaac Hayes theme (“Who’s the black private dick/That’s a sex machine to all the chicks?/Shaft. Ya damn right”), I hunted down the book in which the PI debuted, 1970’s Shaft, by Ernest Tidyman. And in the years since, I have purchased and read most of its half-dozen sequels (the exceptions being 1973’s Goodbye, Mr. Shaft and 1975’s prophetically titled The Last Shaft). Strangely, perhaps, I’ve never watched Shaft in Africa (1973), the third and least-celebrated of the original Shaft films, all of which star Richard Roundtree, but I have sat through the first couple—Shaft and its explosive successor, Shaft’s Big Score!—on multiple occasions. I even own the full, seven-episode run of CBS-TV’s version of Shaft (1973-1974).
Oh, and let’s not forget that one of the earliest posts I wrote for Kirkus Reviews—the third one, in fact, back in 2011—was devoted to the 40th anniversary of Shaft’s American big-screen premiere.
Yeah, you might call me a fan.
But I’m nothing by comparison with Aldous. There’s good reason for The World of Shaft being marketed as a “complete guide” to the character and his persistently turbulent, treacherous post–Summer of Love world. Its author knows his subject inside and out. Fifty-four years old, a veteran of Britain’s banking industry and a resident of Bury, an old textile-mill town near Manchester, England, Aldous initially became acquainted with gumshoe Shaft by way of the TV series. “I was only 13 at the time it was broadcast in the UK [in 1974],” he told me during a recent e-mail interview, “and it seemed to me that even the TV version of Shaft was different from the other detective heroes of the time—not just because of his color, but also his attitude and his swagger. Even in this watered-down version something shone through in Richard Roundtree’s portrayal that hooked me in.” Like yours truly, Aldous was provoked by the on-screen adaptations of Shaft to seek out Tidyman’s novels, which he “found…to be much more adult than the TV series and the character to be more abrasive.”
Aldous’ interest in Shaft and his creator, seasoned white journalist Tidyman (1928-1984), took a critical turn about 15 years ago, when the World Wide Web was coming into its own as an information resource. Crime fiction–oriented sites were springing up all over, presenting background on Tidyman and his character that hadn’t been as easily available before. “Through these sites,” said Aldous, “I saw rumors that some of the Shaft books had been ghostwritten. This spurred me on to find out more. I could find no books or studies of the Shaft novels or films in print, so I thought I may as well have a go myself. Through research I discovered that Ernest Tidyman’s papers are held at the University of Wyoming and obtained an inventory of more than 140 boxes of material. The problem was then one of geography as I am U.K. based. I managed to hire a researcher to help me sort through the content and I was excited and fascinated to see there was so much material there.” Aldous’ efforts resulted early on in his composing a pair of insightful pieces, one about Tidyman’s second Shaft novel, Shaft Among the Jews (1972), and the other about Tidyman hiring “ghosts” to fill out his novel-writing obligations. (Full disclosure: those articles appeared originally in my long-running blog, The Rap Sheet, and won me a small mention in Aldous’ Acknowledgments.) But his research culminated in The World of Shaft.
In his iconic theme, Isaac Hayes calls Shaft “a complicated man.” The roots and evolution of this protagonist were no less complicated—or compelling. Aldous’ new book places Shaft in the context of the early 1970s, an era that followed major advancements in civil rights for African Americans, but during which the influential Black Power movement took up the charge against still-endemic “racist attitudes.” Cleveland-born Ernest Tidyman “had worked as a journalist in New York through the 1960s,” Aldous explained, “and written articles covering the plight of black Americans as a freelance journalist.” By 1968, however, he was “flat-ass broke” and in the market for better options. That’s when Alan Rinzler, the mystery-fiction editor at book publisher Macmillan, encouraged him to “to create a black detective hero” who could tap into “the social unrest and changing attitudes in society at that time.” Aldous quotes Tidyman as saying that “The blacks I knew were sharp and sophisticated, and I thought what about a black hero who thinks of himself as a human being, but who can use his black rage as one of his resources, along with intelligence and courage.”
Thus was born John Shaft. A product of years spent in America’s flawed foster-home system, contact with “Harlem street-gang culture” and an eye-opening tour of duty during the Vietnam War, Shaft had flunked out of law school but racked up two years of employment with the Pinkerton detectives before becoming “the first…independent black private eye in New York City.”
Shaft proved to be Tidyman’s stepping stone to fame and fortune. The character won him not only a hot-selling series of crime thrillers and that trio of associated big-budget movies, but additional screenwriting contracts (he won an Academy Award in 1972 for his film adaptation of Robin Moore’s The French Connection) and his own film production company. Yet Shaft proved, as well, to be a source of frustration for the man who’d given him at least fictional life. “I think Tidyman cared a lot for the John Shaft he created, but quickly became disillusioned at how his creation was being portrayed and used by others,” Aldous explained. “He bowed out of the film series before Shaft in Africa and had no involvement in the development of the TV series. He had committed to seven books with movie adaptation options in an agreement with MGM. Adaptations of his work would be more lucrative financially, but the studio wanted to commission original screenplays. Tidyman also didn’t think he could do any more with Shaft as a character creatively beyond the planned seven books.”
The World of Shaft delves into the plots and development of those seven novels, and their lasting impact on thriller fiction. (It’s not at all hard, for instance, to find Shaft’s DNA coursing through the veins of characters such as Jack Reacher.) It offers similarly meticulous examinations of the original Shaft films, as well as Samuel L. Jackson’s cringe-worthy 2000 “sequel,” Shaft. Beyond that, Aldous looks back at what New York City was like in the early 1970s (“a very different city from today with a high crime rate, corruption within the police force and a growing level of social disorder”), provides the most thorough biography possible of John Shaft (and lesser portraits of his supporting players), recounts the unraveling of plans to launch a Shaft newspaper comic strip and, of course, revisits the short-lived TV drama that first brought Shaft to his attention. TV Guide critic Cleveland Amory dismissed that show as “just one more nitty-gritty bang-bang,” while Cecil Smith of the Los Angeles Times wrote, “Shaft on TV makes Barnaby Jones look like Eldridge Cleaver.” Aldous blames the TV series’ demise on ill-suited producers and television’s reluctance “to show the levels of sex and violence seen on the big screen….[R]ather than challenge this and push at the boundaries (like series such as Kojak had done to create some authenticity), the producers took the decision to make Shaft family friendly.”
Though Steve Aldous might be banking on older Shaft enthusiasts as the principal audience for his excellent new book, it turns out that Tidyman’s protagonist is enjoying a surprising comeback of late. Prolific comic-book writer David F. Walker last year produced a mini-series for Dynamite Entertainment that explored John Shaft’s “origins” prior to the events in 1970’s Shaft. He has a second series of Shaft comics due out in February, along with a new novella, Shaft’s Revenge. Meanwhile, Walker had been working with Gary Phillips, author of the Ivan Monk private eye series and the Angeltown comics, on an anthology of new Shaft stories. For now, says Phillips, “that project’s in limbo as far as I know,” but as any Shaft fan will tell you, it’s never smart to bet against the future of that “black Sam Spade.” Aldous insisted during our exchange that Tidyman’s street-smart shamus can still be relevant.
“Shaft is a detective hero and the crime genre is as popular today as it has ever been,” he wrote. “Black heroes on screen are more prevalent now than when Shaft was first released, but there is still an attitude and self-assurance in the nature of Shaft’s character that would resonate today. Unfortunately, there are also some similarities in the issues encountered by young black people today with those seen back in the early 1970s.”
Photo top right: Steve Aldous photographed by Jenna Nolan