In the first chapter of David Black’s Fast Shuffle, pitch-perfect detail and description transport the reader to the classic days of hard-boiled detective fiction. Black’s PI Harry Dickinson smokes unfiltered cigarettes, sports wide lapels, and a maroon tie “a hand span higher than his belt.” In his office “dusty daylight filter[s] in through the slats of crooked venetian blinds.” And all the while, Harry keeps humming “Stormy Weather.”
Then comes a jolt of reality. In the world outside Harry’s office, people shop at K-Mart, wear $300 sneakers and Ventile jackets and drive Tercels. Harry, we learn, is affected by complex seizure disorder, which, in his case, sends him from the prosaic present back to the darkly poetic past of the ‘40s—to the shady worlds of Hammett and Chandler, Bogart and Bacall.
Contrast—between then and now, romance and realism, idealism and cynicism—forms the core of Fast Shuffle, just as it does in its author’s life.
“My heritage is of Jewish socialists on one side,” Black explains, “and of Jewish gangsters on the other side. My great aunt was Polly Adler [the (in)famous Manhattan madam of the ‘20s, ’30s and early ‘40s whose girls entertained some of the guys from the Algonquin roundtable]. It’s a mix of idealism and gritty practicality. I delight in both.”
And so, for Fast Shuffle, Black created, he says, “a lovable loon who lives in a non-ordinary reality, who sees what others miss.” But that shouldn’t suggest Harry isn’t a crack PI, as readers will discover as they follow him and his assistant, a girl he calls Friday, on the trail of a missing woman with a mysteriously depleted bank account.
Harry’s sometimes perilous pursuit is laced with whimsy—Kirkus’ reviewercalls it “…a sweetly moving fable for nostalgia buffs…”—and Harry bears more than a passing resemblance to Elwood P. Dowd, the dreamy but sage hero who travels life’s mean streets in the company of the eponymous invisible rabbit in Mary Chase’s play Harvey.
“I loved Harvey when I first saw it a kid on Million Dollar Movie,” Black says. “It was a meld of whimsy attached to life.”
Black’s professional life has hewed closer to fact than to fantasy. He spent many years as a news reporter. Later, for films and TV, he wrote screenplays for realistic crime shows such as Law and Order, Hill St. Blues, C.S.I. Miami and many others.
But daring to dream is still something Black does—and encourages others to do.
“When students come to my writing classes,” he says, “ they think they should be doctors, lawyers. They think it’s not okay to be writers. I tell them it is okay.”
And after several years of writing “grim scripts,” Black was prompted by his daughter to try something lighter. “ ‘Everything you do is so unpleasant,’ ” she said, Black recalls in an afterword to Fast Shuffle. “ ‘Why don’t you write something for me?’ ”
Inspiration arrived one morning when a man entered a restaurant where Black was breakfasting before going to work on Hill St. Blues. The man wore a trench coat, baggy brown suit, and a brown slouch hat. As Brown recalls in the afterword, “His face was ruined in a good-looking way. He looked as if he had walked out of the pages of Farewell, My Lovely.”
Black first thought of Fast Shuffle as a film and at one time or another Jeff Goldblum, Mel Gibson and Harrison Ford were close to becoming Harry. But when studio heads attached to the project moved on to other studios, Black says, their successors, who did not want to be known for producing their predecessor’s projects, passed. Eventually the script went into Black’s desk drawer where it would have stayed had reality not intervened.
“I had three heart attacks in seven weeks,” Black says. “I decided that if I were going to do this story, I’d better do it.”
And so Harry came to life on the page where, Black says, the PI will return at least two more times if this first installment succeeds. Black, meanwhile, fully recovered. He celebrated his recent 70th birthday by taking tap dance lessons and was overjoyed to see the steps he mastered on stage in the Broadway musical Something Rotten. His terpsichorean triumph belies the prophecies of the gloomy writers he met when he arrived in New York some decades ago.
“They said I’d missed it, that the great party for writers in New York was over,” he says. “They were wrong. It goes on.”
Gerald Bartell covers books for the Washington Post, the San Francisco Chronicle and Kirkus.