Lately I’ve been reading a variety of detective novels set during the so-called Age of Aquarius—the 1960s, early ’70s. Prominent among those was Walter Mosley’s new, 12th Easy Rawlins novel, Rose Gold, which finds the African-American Los Angeles sleuth searching for the daughter of a prosperous arms manufacturer in 1967. Said young woman may or may not have been abducted by a militant black boxer; her father may or may not have been involved in hiring Easy to bring her home; but there’s no question that numerous officials (from the LAPD, the FBI, and the U.S. State Department) want Easy to abandon this case post haste. Rose Gold is a dynamic yarn, rife with period slang and early blooming flower children, but it lacks the emotional resonance of Easy trying to recover from a potentially deadly car accident, which so powered Mosley’s previous entry in this series, Little Green.
Also now moved to my “done” pile is Riders on the Storm, the 10th outing for Ed Gorman’s Sam McCain, an able if not hard-hitting investigator and attorney in small-town Iowa. Set in 1971, Riders dispatches McCain to the aid of a traumatized friend and former soldier, Will Cullen, who has joined a group of veterans opposing the Vietnam War. This doesn’t sit well with other ex-troopers, one of whom—a political comer named Steve Donovan—thrashes Cullen for his “betrayal.” When Donovan is subsequently murdered, Cullen is the obvious suspect—obvious to everyone, that is, except our man McCain. If, as reports say, this is to be Sam McCain’s final appearance, he’s certainly going out on a high note. Not only is the story rewardingly complex and its characterizations credible, but the prose throughout Riders is conscientiously crafted. It’s not often nowadays that a book is penned with great respect for the King’s English (authors and editors alike having become lazy), but this one certainly is.
Most recently I polished off Sweet Sunday. It’s a twisty, sometimes terrifying, occasionally touching tale about homicide and high-level secrets from John Lawton, the British TV producer/novelist who penned the Inspector Frederick Troy thrillers (A Lily of the Field) as well as last year’s Then We Take Berlin, which introduced burglar-turned-spy Joe Wilderness. Sweet Sunday originally saw print in the U.K. back in 2002, but this new Atlantic Monthly Press edition has been re-copyedited for an American audience, with scattered small errors cleaned up.
It’s the summer of 1969—“the summer we went to the moon,” writes Lawton. “The hottest, the sweatiest, the longest—the most American.” Novelist, journalist and cultural polymath Norman Mailer is running for mayor of New York City with “Vote the Rascals In” buttons and a platform that endorses splitting his adopted metropolis off from the remainder of New York (turning it into the 51st state of the Union), devolving government to the neighborhoods, and banning all private automobiles from Manhattan streets. Mel Kissing, a “hotshot reporter” for The Village Voice newspaper, drags his best friend, (John) Turner Raines, along to a Brooklyn get-together supporting Mailer’s candidacy, also attended by social activist Jerry Rubin and journalist Gloria Steinem (then still famous for her undercover—but not much covered—stint as a Playboy Bunny, intent on exposing the exploitative working conditions imposed on those curvy waitresses). Raines, a Texas-born failed attorney-turned–private investigator, doesn’t harbor much hope of Mailer winning. Yet he’s charmed by the author’s idea of halting all mechanical transportation (including elevators) on one Sunday each month, keeping that day “sweet,” a time for people to slow down and talk with one another.
Raines, though, has other, more immediate concerns on his mind. Notably the disappearance of Joey DiMarco, the 19-year-old “punk” son of an Italian restaurateur, who torched his draft card and presumably hied off north to Canada to avoid becoming the next ’Nam casualty. This is right up Raines’ alley. He’s found his career niche tracking down draft dodgers—not to haul them home, but to deliver them messages from their parents and in turn let those parents know they’re OK. It doesn’t take Raines long to find Joey in Toronto, but his quarry promptly punctures him with a switchblade and sends him into hospital care for weeks. And when the PI finally returns to New York, he learns that Mel Kissing (“a loudmouth, smart-ass, irritating Jewish runt of a man who never hurt anybody in his entire life”) has been murdered in Raines’ office, “with an ice pick in his head.”
While the cops size Raines up as a suspect in this crime, his own attention focuses elsewhere: Was Kissing at work on some Voice story that made him a target? That line of inquiry gets a boost when the gumshoe finds a packet in his mail, containing the reporter’s address book, an audio cassette, pages of shorthand and a note reading, “Turner—just keep this till I ask you for it. M.” Clearly, Mel sent all these things to his friend to keep them safe. And hidden. Turner Raines will spend the next 200 pages of Sweet Sunday trying to figure out what Mel Kissing knew that other people didn’t want exposed. The plot skips back and forth through time, and leads Raines all over the U.S. map—from Manhattan to Mississippi, Chicago to Arizona and “a bunch of out-of-it-acid crazies”—as he pieces together the odyssey of the New Ninevah Nine, a cluster of oddball Army grunts whose experiences in Vietnam teach him more about that war’s horrors than he wants to know.
One former soldier, for instance—a high school pal of Raines’ from the Lone Star State named Maurice “Mouse” Kylie—recalls this episode:
I was being flown back to Da Nang [South Vietnam] one time in a gunship. We fly low over a garbage dump, and there are twenty or so gooks scrambling over it looking for the good stuff Uncle Sam throws away. So the guy in charge tells the pilot to come round again. He drops a load of C-rations and candy bars, so the gooks all converge on ’em, we hover while they do and he drops a white phosphorous shell and cooks the lot of ’em. He and the pilot laugh all the way back to base.…Things like that happen all the time.
Yes, Sweet Sunday is a crime novel, a detective novel, even a whodunit. If you chart its structure, it follows the familiar pattern: misdeed committed, clues sought, culprit eventually revealed. However, within that formula author Lawton does a great deal more than solve a slaying; he also strives to get a handle on the hopes, fears, antagonisms, and disappointments of 1960s America, when opinions on the war in Southeast Asia divided families and generations split over societal ideals.
Turner Raines serves as both narrator and explorer here. He’s a conventional shamus in many respects (down to his being pummeled and furtively fed hallucinogens by a suspect—the latter a familiar fate for fictional PIs of the 1960s), but has a distinctive back story. At 31 years of age, he’s been conveniently on hand for some of the decade’s highest and lowest points. With Mel Kissing, he protested the segregation of buses in the historically racist American South—and was beaten for his efforts. He attended the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, during which antiwar protestors filled the streets and violent confrontations with police, broadcast live on television, further alarmed a public still reeling from Robert F. Kennedy’s assassination. And near the end of this novel, Raines winds up at the legendary Woodstock music festival in southeastern New York, listening to Country Joe McDonald sing and fending off free-love come-ons from “hippie chicks.” In flashbacks, we see all of these incidents, every one of them leaching a bit more optimism from Raines’ soul. We also watch Raines growing up on a hardscrabble farm near Lubbock, Texas, idolizing his big-dreaming older brother and watching in astonishment as his conservative father finally strikes it rich in oil and buys the friendship of future president Lyndon B. Johnson.
It’s all very interesting and entertaining in a literary respect, but Lawton’s dissection of the 1960s veers quite far from his detective-story plot thread. Although I found the ending of Sweet Sunday to be a genuine surprise—a rewarding one, to boot—I fear there will be readers who haven’t patience enough to reach it, who forsake this story as it rolls out pages of Vietnam War recollections (and the roots of a real-life CIA operation), follows Raines through his passionate but never simple affair with a fiery black woman named Althea Burke, and relates the comparatively slow-boiling relationship between the PI and his “let it all hang out” English landlord, Elizabeth “Rose” Diment. Unlike Philip Marlowe or Lew Archer or the Continental Op, in these pages Turner Raines emerges as a full-blown character. But after Joey DiMarco stabs him in Toronto on page 40, very little is said about his work as a private eye or his specialty helping draft dodgers. And he mostly bumbles through his search for clues to Kissing’s demise, helped along occasionally by sheer damn luck.
Even more than Rose Gold or Riders on the Storm, Sweet Sunday is an ambitious work, with Lawton holding together myriad moving parts of his narrative. Although some might knock him for endeavoring to fit too much into the frame of a PI yarn or doing too little to find deeper meaning in all of the stops along Raines’ journey, this novel proves what supporters of crime fiction so often contend: that the genre is broad enough and flexible enough to accommodate any type of tale. To that, I say “groovy.”
Photo: Author John Lawton, by Nick Lockett