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Gutter Review: Negro and an Ofay, by Danny Gardner

A few times a year I start reading a book and realize that, besides being very entertaining and well researched, the narrative possesses a few elements that make it feel like a very welcome and absolutely necessary presence in contemporary crime fiction. In the case of Danny Gardner’s A Negro and an Ofay, the novel accomplished that and more; it had me asking “Who the hell is this guy and why don’t I have a few novels by him in my shelves already?”

Elliot Caprice is on the run after killing two crooked cops in Chicago. He was a Chicago PD Detective, but now he finds himself on the wrong side of the law for all the right reasons and stuck in a jailhouse in St. Louis on false charges, using a fake name, and facing a very big man with very bad intentions. To get out, he calls on friends from his hometown of Southville, IL, and makes his way back to his town only to find his uncle surviving in a flophouse and the family farm on the verge of being foreclosed. To make money, Elliot takes a job with the son of a deadly Jewish mobster. The gig leads him to a widow with a shady past, a chauffeur who may have more than one secret, and a lot of money at stake. Elliot is offered serious cash to find the man, and that takes him back to Chicago. What follows is a fast-paced narrative that brings together 1950s Chicago, the mob, a lot of crooked personal agendas, jazz, and enough violence and mystery to keep crime fans satisfied for almost 300 pages.

ANegro and an Ofay is a crime novel, but one that’s steeped in history and that possesses a wonderful sense of time and place. From the dialogue to the fashion and from the music to the cars, Gardner paid a lot of attention to the world he built for his narrative, and the result is a story that reads like a great period movie in which no detail is left to chance. This could not be accomplished without research, and the depth to which the author went to offer accurate context for the lives and motivations of his characters is something that deserves special attention. This book is both a crime novel without silly clichés and a history text without the boring parts:

“Fighting in the 761st, most of his compatriots only knew of Jews, and those were usually the big city type. They sometimes did business in colored neighborhoods, but afterward they retired to their enclaves with their own kind. For the average Negro, the existence of concentration camps was just another example of how ofays do. Sure, it was another good reason to lay waste to the Krauts, but it was abstract. Then Patton's success took colored regiments deep within German territory, and black faces finally witnessed atrocities that eclipsed the tortures of Jim Crow.”

Besides nailing the sense of time and place, Gardner also manages to bring racial tension to the forefront of the story without affecting the flow of it. Elliot is too light skinned to be black and too dark t be white. The man is caught between two worlds, and even though it seems he belongs to neither completely, the truth is that he’s a black man in America in a time when being such a thing was a major problem. In this regard, the author managed to write about race in a way that makes folks think about racial tension while the thing that is really being discussed is racism. Furthermore, and this is surely something that POC reviewers will probably be more comfortable saying, Elliot is a black hero/antihero, a character that’s strong, gets his way, and forces the reader to root for him; precisely the kind of Other that seems to be mostly absent from most current crime fiction.

"I've been called swarthy, olive-skinned, confused for everything from Moroccan to Sicilian to Cuban. Not by Negroes, tho'. With colored folk, I'm obligated to be colored."

Ultimately, the beauty of A Negro and an Ofay is that it manages to be smart, historical, and about identity/racial issues while retaining all the entertainment value that pulpy thrillers bring to the table. This is a book with a carefully crafted plot that touches on a lot of issues that were as relevant six decades ago as they are now, but it’s also a hell of a fun read packed with jazz, fights, sex, and the kind of dialogue that makes readers remember the name on the cover. I’d say this book is enough to put Gardner on the list of authors whose work I’ll keep an eye on, but that’d be dishonest; it’s the kind of book that makes me want to reach out to the author and immediately start demanding more of his work. If this is any indication of what we can expect from Double Life Press, I strongly suggest grabbing a copy of anything they publish as soon as it comes out.  

Reviewed by Gabino Iglesias