Room To Swing is a classic for many reasons. First, it is a classic whodunit – a hardboiled mystery if you will – where the protagonist, a New York private eye is framed for murder, seemingly by his client. Next, it’s worth mentioning that the book won the Edgar Award for Best Novel for 1958, over such notables as THE LONGEST SECOND, by Bill Ballinger , THE NIGHT OF THE GOOD CHILDREN, by Marjorie Carleton and THE BUSHMAN WHO CAME BACK, by Arthur Upfield . Third, the detective fits the mold of what the hardboiled PI was supposed to be; he, ’s a loner, a man who scratches for money, a veteran and decorated hero of two wars and he is no stranger to violence. But what sets this novel apart is Lacy, who was white, is credited with creating "the first credible African-American Private Eye" character in fiction, Toussaint "Touie" Marcus Moore. Lacy doesn’t just present us with a credible “black” detective but a social commentary that is worth remembering today.
Written in the same years as the Little Rock Nine took their stand, the novel is not only daring by virtue of ‘exposing’ racial issues of the day, but in presenting a realistic point of view of the African American protagonist. In “Touie” Moore we have a man who has distinguished himself in two wars, winning a Silver Star and a Bronze Stars and having risen to the rank of Captain. But, now in his 30’s, living in New York City, his career choices are limited to civil service jobs, domestic, or laborer. Not very good choices for a proud man who stands on his own. He shares a room with two other bachelors and runs his PI Practice in the same room he sleeps, getting “coloured cases” that the “white agencies” won’t take as well as the occasional bouncer gig or Department Store Detective job to catch shop lifters or repossess items, bought on credit, from other blacks in the ghetto.
The story is told in three part, opening in Bingston, Ohio – small, town near the Kentucky Border, and the segregationist south. Touie has come there on a hunch that the real murder must be connected to the victims home town. The victim was himself on the lam from a felony committed there. Bingston is a little town of a couple thousand, so Touie, a negro (and I use that term because at this period of history, Touie preferred Negro and considered being called Black and insult) draws instant attention and not a small amount of racial prejudice. He is refused service at the local lunch counter, where he has stopped to use the phone to try and track down names in the area that might be able to aid in his investigation. He is even refused use of the public pay phone and directed to a gas station on the edge of town where they let “coloureds” use the phone. Of course, the local cop shows up Billy club smacking against his palm. Touie figures that his description and the fact that he may be wanted for the murder in New York City has already spread, but it turns out to be just small town racism, even though Bingston has a coloured section of town and a deeply entrenched coloured middle class. It is one of these citizens that inserts himself between the town bull and Touie, the negro postman tells Touie, “Relax, man.” as the cop asks Touie, “new in town, boy?” Touie thinks, “I have been called Boy more times in the last couple of hours than in my whole life.” The cop isn’t there because he heard of a negro suspect in the killing of one of the locals, a black sheep himself, in New York. He is there to “explain a couple things” to a strange negro in town. Like you can’t eat here. It isn’t the custom. Touie gets a little mad at this and gets a bit tough with his language, tells the cop he wasn’t planning to eat the phone book. The cop doesn’t like Touies nice suit, and he doesn’t like the fact that he is driving a fancy, foreign car, a Jaguar, nor is he accustom to being talk back to by a Negro. Touie leaves, but the postman stops him outside the dinner and tells him that “Bingston ain’t a mean town for coloured, just a little old fashion.” Touie tells him to stop the race relations patter. Touie tells the postman he is looking for May Russell, one of the names on his list. The postman tells Touie that asking about May Russell will start real trouble, “she isn’t for coloured men.” So Touie pegs her as a loose woman, but a white loose woman.
The postman eventually invites Touie to stay at his home, since there are no hotels in town that cater to Negros. Touie meets Frances, the postman’s daughter. Touie is considering becoming a postman back in New York, mainly so he’ll have a steady income and a “respectable job” which would make his girlfriend, Sybil, happy. Touie eventually confides in Frances, who he grows to respect, that he is investigating Bob Thomas’ murder, and that he is a suspect. Frances, accepts this and agrees to show Touie around the town and help him find the people that Touie needs to learn about. She tells him that the town is not so bad, as long as your skin is pale, Most of the coloured population has good, solid, jobs. Like her postman father. The coloured population of Bingston has also just scored a ‘major’ victory, after a two year fight they are now allowed to sit in the orchestra at the local movie house instead of being confined to the balcony. Frances knows that there must be more to life than sitting in the balcony and has a yearning to leave, maybe go to college, but that isn’t likely for a Negro daughter in southern Ohio. Touie turns the conversation to Bob Thomas, the murdered man. Frances tells him that people aren’t really concerned with his murder, they are actually pretty relieved. Thomas had broke out of jail after being picked up for rape and assault. Frances alludes to the fact that Thomas was framed, but doesn’t tell him much more at this point.
On a night time ride through the country, Touie runs the story of his involvement by Frances, and a friendship and trust begins to form and the story goes back to New York, three days earlier. Touie received a visit from a white woman, unusual in itself, since his PI business was almost always with other Negros. The woman is Kay Robbens and she is with a local TV station who has a plan to release a new TV show called “You—Detective” the premise is similar to todays “America’s Most Wanted”. But more scripted and devised. As Kay puts it, “It’s low-level, moronic, disgusting – and it’s my job.” The idea is to dig up cold cases on felons that have fled and not been captured. To find them using PI’s and then set up their arrest live, on TV, by private citizens that are actually unknown actors. Kay has tracked down the first episode’s “star”; Bob Thomas, and wants to pay Touie a small fortune, $1500.00 for a months retainer, to shadow him for until the episode is ready to air.
Touie is seduced by this wind fall and the prospect of getting other lucrative jobs with the show and the TV station. In short, he has stars in his eyes and starts to think he can win Sybil without becoming a boring, postman. Sybil, who is a light skinned negro, thus of a “higher social standing” wants Touie to take the safe job, get a bigger “nice apartment” and be a respectable Negro. But as Touie gets drawn in deeper with Kay’s white friends, he dreams large. He even takes it in stride when Kay tells him, ‘I always try and give you people a helping hand, so I was surprised when you were a Negro.” Touie thinks, “okay, whites can sure say the jerkiest things, I’ve met the type before. At least she is jerky in a friendly way, so many are jerky in a nasty way.” The book succeeds as social commentary on scenes like this throughout and doesn’t sacrifice a great story told in a great way while doing it. Walter Mosley does this very well in his EZ Rawlins books,and surely owes a nod to Ed Lacy.
As Touie gets invited along to parties with Kay’s oh so liberal and socially conscious friends, he learn the other side of racism, the supposed intellectuals with so much concern for the ‘plight of the Negro’ in voice but not in action. At the same time he shines a light on the black community and their own divisions and social strata of ‘lightness of skin’ being the factor on just how far you can go and what you are allowed to achieve. But, Touie has white friends, ex army buddies, that completely disregard race and only look at a persons self worth and how they carry themselves, while still being realists in 1950’s New York. Touie also learns about Bob Thomas, who is living a quiet life, working steady as a machinist, taking correspondence courses and staying away from trouble and not acting the least bit like a fugitive on the run.
One night, Touie is lured to Thomas’ apartment, he thinks by Kay, at midnight only to find Thomas dead, and a cop showing up at just the right time to frame Touie for his murder. Touie slugs the cop and flees, eventually winding up in Bingston to try and find a motive for the murder and hopefully the killer, as he figures that is the only way to avoid death row. And he may not even be able to avoid the cops if he turns up the murder, since he slugged a white cop.
In Bingston, he finds plenty of suspects. Thomas was poor white trash, and raised pretty much without a mother. He was cared for and worked for black women, who fed him, but he eventually made enemies until he was accused of rape and assault. Touie eventually travels deeper into the heart of the segregation crisis, both in the north in Ohio, and across the border to the south which is Kentucky, in order to find the truth that might clear his name. The search down many dead ends, and in fleshing out the early life of Bob Thomas he makes some discoveries that lead him back to New York to unwind the mystery. He has to make choices on who to trust, Kay, his white friends who just might want the publicity of turning up a killer, Sybil who is more concerned with what her friends will think about her dating someone accused of murdering a white man than with whether or not he is guilty, and finally how to expose and trap the killer.
This book stands as a social document of the complex racial politics of the times–and also as a damn good mystery and a classic of the genre that deserves to be remembered and read not only today, but in the future.
Ed Lacy, born Leonard "Len" S. Zinberg was probably best know for his stories with boxing as a back drop. In books such as Walk Hard, Talk Loud and 1954’s Go For The Body, where he chronicled “Boxing racketeers, loose-hipped blondes and chiselers” often featured African American protagonists – indeed Lacy was probably the preeminent writer of boxing fiction of the times and also contributed to Ringside magazine as well as other sports journals of the day – but Room To Swing gave us a very respectable black PI, and opened the genre to those to come. Lacy’s interest in African American culture and leftist politics stemmed from his 1920s Jewish heritage and he was married to a black woman and lived most of his life in and around Harlem and actually won many accolades from black writers groups. he died of a heart attack in a Laundromat in Harlem at the age of 56 (1968).
The Dirty Lowdown