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After being fired from his job as a union organizer in 1989, Gary Phillips took a writing class with Robert Crais (author of the Elvis Cole series) on how to write a mystery novel. Crais taught the class how to structure a book by dissecting Robert Parker's first Spenser mystery, The Godwulf Manuscript (see Orrin's review of A Savage Place). Phillips eventually found a way to incorporate his own liberal social beliefs, the elements of the classic hard-boiled private eye genre and the backdrop of post-riot Los Angeles into his first Ivan Monk mystery, Violent Spring. Then he and John Shannon (see review of Concrete River) put together their own publishing outfit and printed the book. As a result of their success, the Monk books have been reprinted by Berkley and are now readily available.
There has always been a weird dichotomy in detective fiction. The private eye is in a certain sense something of a bleeding heart--trying to protect innocents from the corrupt system, trying to heal the pain of their clients, often protecting wrongdoers whom they feel should not be punished, and so on. But on the other hand, they are fundamentally conservative--adhering to rigid moral codes, fighting evil, completely alienated from bureaucracy and government in general. So there is nothing really new in what Phillips is trying to do here.
Ivan Monk is a former Merchant Marine, former bail bondsman, now absentee owner of a donut shop and full time private eye. When the body of a Korean merchant is found at the groundbreaking for a new business development in South LA, both the Korean Merchants association and the white developers hire Monk to look into the murder. It is assumed that Monk, because he is black, will be able to investigate the seeming gang related nature of the killing without ruffling feathers in the Hood. But Monk finds himself ensnared in a vicious web of politics and ends up caught in the middle of a turf battle between black street gangs, white developers, Asian merchants and Latino community activists. As Phillips says, modern LA most resembles the Balkans, with the different ethnic groups all struggling for their piece of the pie and mostly willing to do whatever they have to do in order to get it.
Phillips does try to inject some liberal cant into his tale, but it is mostly too formulaic or downright ridiculous to take seriously:
Not that Monk laid the entire blame for gangsterism
at the feet of men like Reagan and Bush. Still,
Uh huh, I can see the though process of that young hoodlum now: "I was going to finish high school and get a job at Go-Go Mart while I went to Community College, but now that we've bombed Qaddafi, I'm going to deal crack instead." You betcha.
But if you can gnaw your way through these brief servings of tripe, he does serve up an action packed mystery set in a milieu that is unfamiliar, fascinating and frightening. The tribal politics make for a classically tangled web and Monk is an affable guide through the thickets.
See also:Private Eyes
-Gary Phillips: Political Activist & Mystery Writer (Judith I. Norman, Class Web Magazine: Asian American Studies M163/African American Studies M195, Fall 1998: Investigative Journalism People of Color: Race Relations in L.A.)
-Gary Phillips interview (Mystery Guide)
-Gary Phillips (Tangled Web)
-Mystery Guide - Violent Spring by Gary Phillips
-Ivan Monk (Thrilling Detective)
-African American Mystery Page: GARY PHILLIPS
-REVIEW: Violent Spring by Gary Phillips (Harriet Klausner, BookBrowser: Detective/Mystery Series)
-Darker Shade of Noir (LA New Times)
If you liked Ivan Monk, try: