Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Ivan Monk Is on the Trail fo Crimes Old and New

This is the fourth novel by Gary Phillips to feature L.A. private investigator Ivan Monk. The story starts innocently enough when an elderly man named Marshall Spears keels over and dies in front of Monk and a number of other friends at the Abyssinia Barber Shop & Shine Parlor. Only belatedly does Monk discover that, as a younger man, Spears played in the Negro baseball leagues with Monk's cousin, Kennesaw Riles.

Most of Monk's family has had little to do with Riles in the years since Riles' testimony was largely responsible for the conviction in the 1960s of a black civil rights leader named Damon Creel. Creel had been accused of killing two white female civil rights workers in Tennessee, one of whom he'd been sleeping with. The evidence against him was relatively weak, but an all-white jury convicted him largely because of the testimony offered by Riles. Not surprisingly, many blacks, including members of his own family, dismissed Riles as a turncoat informant.

Shortly after the funeral for Marshall Spears, Riles dies under mysterious circumstances and Monk begins an investigation of Riles' death which also leads him to look into the case against Damon Creel. The trail takes him from California to Tennessee and Mississippi, where even at the end of the Millennium, relations between the races remain relatively raw even though there's now something of a polite veneer on the surface.

The longer the case goes on, the more complex and dangerous it becomes. Even Monk's mother is attacked, perhaps in an effort to send him a message, and Monk suddenly finds himself alone in unfamiliar and hostile territory. It will take all his skills, mental and physical, if he's going to survive and ultimately find solutions to the very complicated questions that confront him.

This is a very engaging and well-written book that hooks the reader early on. Monk is a great protagonist and the insights that Phillips provides into black culture and society are riveting. In this case, I violated my rule of always beginning a series with the first book because one of my book clubs selected this book to read this month, but I'll be putting the first three on my TBR list.

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