Monday, October 13, 2014

My Bouchercon panels: Joe Nazel's Street Wars

Race is not generally a laughing matter in America, so I was surprised and pleased to find some nicely executed humor amid the violence and misery and frenetic action of Joe Nazel's Street Wars. A co-protagonist with a huge appetite charges out into the street to save the day, but not before stopping for breakfast. His colleague charges out on an even more urgent mission, only to be detained by an insistent pastor. The robbery, chase, and car crash that set the novel's action in motion would make one of the great movie scenes in all of action cinema, if a director, cameraman, and editor could tell as many stories, present as many character sketches (including one of a woman who loses her pizza in the carnage), and capture as much speed and excitement on the screen as Nazel does on the page.

 Nazel also aimed satire at self-delusion among African Americans, mixing terror and humor, embodied in the crumbling Regal Arms hotel, almost a character in itself, where the protagonists run their security agency. "It was said," Nazel writes, that a black dentist built the hotel after being turned away from larger downtown Los Angeles hotels. But
"Aging street historians claimed to know the `real dirt.' The dentist, they said, had been passing for white in the East. He had built a sizeable and profitable practice in a well-to-do white community, and was doing quite well until his true colors were exposed. He, his white wife, and cocoa-brown, nappy-head, new-born son, were forced out of town, a few terrifying steps ahead of an angry lynch mob with perfect white teeth."
I'm pretty sure Nazel would have read Chester Himes' Cotton Comes to Harlem. He calls his heroes Terrence Malcolm Slaughter and Fred "Dead-On-Arrival" Hollis (Hollis is the big eater), and those monikers look to me like affectionate, over-the-top nods to Himes' Gravedigger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson. Like Himes' book, Street Wars has a sprawling cast chasing loot through a big-city black community, Like Himes, Nazel targets thieving preachers and self-proclaimed revolutionaries (though Nazel, whose book appeared years after Himes' 1965 novel, calls his revolutionaries "left over from the Sixties.").

An obituary for Nazel, who died in 2006, appeared under the headline "Joe Nazel, 62; L.A. Journalist, Biographer of Black Luminaries." I'm not sure if that's a tribute to the range of his interests, or a snub for his crime, horror, and adventure novels.  For an idea of what Nazel got up to, read an appreciation by Emery Holmes II.

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 Gary Phillips will discuss Joe Nazel as part of my panel on Beyond Hammett, Chandler, and Spillane: Lesser Known Writers of the Pulp and Paperback Eras on Friday at 3.p.m. at Bouchercon 2014 in Long Beach.

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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