Hawaiian Noir

Murder Calls

Groovy Gumshoes, Private Eyes in the Psychedelic Sixties was released on Monday, April 11. This anthology was edited by Michael Bracken. It contains 15 private eye stories, all set in the 1960’s. The list of contributors includes some of the best short story writers today, so I’m honored to be among them: Tom Milani, Michael Bracken, N.M. Cedeño, Grant Tracey, Jack Bates, C.W. Blackwell, Steve Liskow, Robb White, Andrew Welsh-Huggins, Mark Thielman, Neil Plakcy, Adam Meyer, Hugh Lessig, Stephen D. Rogers, and me. You can order your copy directly from the publisher, Down & Out Books or from Amazon and Barnes and Noble. The cover is just an extra bonus.

When Michael Bracken put out his call for submissions, I had to jump on it. The sixties are my era. I entered high school in 1961 and graduated from college in 1969. The best music, the best literature, and the best cinema were produced in the sixties. As I look back, I think that the issue that defined the decade was segregation and the struggle for civil rights. For a time, the Vietnam war nearly overshadowed the civil rights cause, but eventually it became clear that the two issues were tightly bound up by racism. Our leaders were sending black men halfway around the world to kill brown men. Leaders who tried to prevent that were assassinated.

I was born near St. Louis, Missouri and that’s where I’d spent the sixties. I’d never written a story set in St. Louis, so this presented an opportunity. It also presented a challenge. Michael had suggested that the stories involve the events of the decade, not as background, but as an integral part of the story. However, the big headline events of that era, the ones that captured everyone’s attention and which determined the course of our lives for decades to come, all seemed to occur elsewhere. If I was going to write about St. Louis, I would have to dig deeper into its history. I hoped to find something that, while it might not have been a major event at the time, was nevertheless indicative of that era and became more important in the future.

In 1968, a black family sought to buy a home in Ferguson, Missouri. If successful, they would be the first.

Ferguson is a suburban St. Louis city which bordered my home town. Growing up, I knew nothing of Ferguson’s history. It was a pleasant community where Mom took us shopping for back-to-school clothes and where we went on Saturdays to see the movies. The fact that all of the residents were white did not register with me at the time. Even if it had, I would not have known that structural racism was the cause.

Ferguson was a sundown town. Non-whites who were found within the city limits after sundown were subject to harassment and arrest. At one time, the city might have posted signs saying that colored were not allowed there after sundown. By the time the sixties rolled around, such signs were no longer permissible, but the city remained a de facto sundown town. Redlining was the method of enforcement. Realtors would not show homes in redlined areas to non-whites. Banks would not lend to non-whites for homes in those areas. The Fair Housing Act of 1968 was designed to put an end to redlining. In reality, the act pushed it below the surface.

Had the Fair Housing Act done as intended, had it been enforced, the pioneer black family might have had an easier time purchasing their home in Ferguson. Despite the resistance of realtors who didn’t even return phone calls, they persisted with the help of a white clergyman. Threats and intimidation followed. Eventually they prevailed, but it would be forty years before the story of their struggle and eventual success was told. By that time, many more families of color had moved into Ferguson. The city, from the outside, seemed an example of what the Fair Housing Act was designed to accomplish. But the shadow of racism is long. Institutional racism didn’t go away; it just mutated into a more toxic form. And so, in the summer of 2014, Ferguson exploded.

In 1968, the nation was torn apart by the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy. The fires were stoked by the rhetoric of George Wallace. Nevertheless we had made progress on civil rights and we repudiated George Wallace at the ballot box. Jim Crow appeared, if not dead, then soon to be. We dared to hope. It was the dawning of the age of aquarius. In hindsight, we were naive.

My take on the story of Ferguson is that we underestimated the staying power of the beast. The busting of redlining was a victory in the fight against racism, but then we let our guard down.
I began the story with a white private eye. He was something of a hippie, a member of the counter-culture, but I soon realized he wouldn’t do. His hope blinded him to the reality of what was happening. I needed someone who had faced the beast, who was more grounded in reality, whose hope was tempered with cynicism.

Meet Horatio Cutter, a black man recently returned from Vietnam. His weapon is a camera. He does freelance assignments for a white private eye firm. His ambition is to one day get his own PI license. Horatio has struggled for equality all his life, but it’s only when assigned to gather photographic evidence of the radical activities of a white clergyman that he confronts institutionalized racism head on. Though he enjoys a small measure of victory over the beast, the victory, as we all know, wasn’t final.

I’m honored and proud that “Sundown Town” appears in Groovy Gumshoes. I hope you all will get yourselves a copy and let me know how you like it. I plan on writing more Horatio Cutter stories.

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