A sniper appears in 1960s New Orleans, a sun-baked city of Black Panthers and other separatists. Five people have been fatally shot. When the sixth victim is killed, Lew Griffin is standing beside her. He’s black and she’s white, and though they are virtual strangers, it is left to Griffin to avenge her death, or at least to try and make some sense of it. His unlikely allies include a crusading black journalist, a longtime supplier of mercenary arms and troops, and bail bondsman Frankie DeNoux.
In the Black Hornet, I met Lew Griffin again, a man who the word complex doesn’t go far enough to describe. In his life, he has been many things – soldier, private investigator, criminal, author – and trouble always seems to come knocking.
The Black Hornet can be read as a standalone, and if you do, you will know non of these things about Griffin because this book takes us back to the beginning, before he was anything but a former soldier trying to make a life in a city that doesn’t seem to care much about any of his residents.
New Orleans in the sixties sounds dirty, and hard, and not a place I would want to be but it suits Griffin and the people he meets perfectly, and it serves as a perfect backdrop for the civil rights movement that is brewing and the way life for black men is changing, but maybe not quick enough.
The setting, and the story, suit the way James Sallis writes to a tee. He doesn’t waste words, with short sentences, short chapters and short books (this one runs at 150 pages), yet I never feel like I am missing out on anything. Plot lines move along quickly, we me rushing to keep up and characters appear fully formed and expecting you to know who they are and what they are about.
It took me a while the first book round to get into the style but now I have to say I look forward to it. I know what I’ll get and I like it. It reminds me of the way people like Humphrey Bogart talked back in the day and of gumshoe novels. Simple is the wrong word to describe it, it’s not, but it feels like that on the surface, whilst under it a lot is said and you have plenty to chew on and think about, long after the last page.
Saying all that, I know this book won’t be for everyone. Most characters don’t have much in the way of descriptions for example, you have to piece people together with the bits you know, which are given sparingly (so LaVerne, Griffins girlfriend starts to form when I find out about her red dress, which he finds hanging up in another mans flat).
Then there’s the fact that the main story isn’t always the main story (to not sound cryptic) because it’s really about the characters and what drives them – usually it’s sadness but with a fair bit of hope thrown in. When I got to the end here, the who the sniper was part, I was slightly disappointed because it meant the book was over and I didn’t want it to be. I wanted to stay in New Orleans, seedy as it was, drinking bourbon and shooting the breeze with unsavoury characters.
For me, though, this is another winner from Sallis, who is one of my favourite authors. This was a great addition to a series with a character I find compelling and with a story I couldn’t put down. I loved it!
Other books in the series: