Review: One-Shot Harry by Gary Phillips

Review: One-Shot Harry by Gary PhillipsOne-Shot Harry by Gary Phillips
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical mystery, mystery, suspense, thriller
Pages: 274
Published by Soho Crime on April 5, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books

Race and civil rights in 1963 Los Angeles provide a powerful backdrop in Gary Phillips’s riveting historical crime novel about an African American forensic photographer seeking justice for a friend—perfect for fans of Walter Mosley, James Ellroy, and George Pelecanos.
LOS ANGELES, 1963: African American Korean War veteran Harry Ingram earns a living as a news photographer and occasional process server: chasing police radio calls and dodging baseball bats. With racial tensions running high on the eve of Martin Luther King’s Freedom Rally, Ingram risks becoming a victim at every crime scene he photographs.
When Ingram hears about a deadly automobile accident on his police scanner, he recognizes the vehicle described as belonging to his good friend and old army buddy, a white jazz trumpeter. The LAPD declares the car crash an accident, but when Ingram develops his photos, he sees signs of foul play. Ingram feels compelled to play detective, even if it means putting his own life on the line. Armed with his wits, his camera, and occasionally his Colt .45, “One-Shot” Harry plunges headfirst into the seamy underbelly of LA society, tangling with racists, leftists, gangsters, zealots, and lovers, all in the hope of finding something resembling justice for a friend.
Master storyteller and crime fiction legend Gary Phillips has filled the pages of One-Shot Harry with fascinating historical cameos, wise-cracks, tenderness, and an edge-of-your-seat thrill ride of a plot with consequences far beyond one dead body.

My Review:

One-Shot Harry is a fast-paced, noir-flavored, tautly written historical mystery set amid the turmoil of the summer of 1963 as Los Angeles was gearing up for Martin Luther King Jr.’s impending visit to the city.

Harry Ingram, a black Korean War vet who manages to keep his PTSD at bay by viewing life distanced through the lens of a camera, makes his living covering the crime beat for whoever will pay for his pictures – and occasional reporting – in LA’s black community. Which means that he mostly sells to the local black daily newspapers and the various magazines that served the community – back in a day when people still mostly got their news in print.

Between the pictures, and his side hustles as a process server and occasional fill-in member of one or more local jazz bands, Harry manages to pay the rent and not wonder too hard about where his next meal is coming from – but it’s a precarious living.

A livelihood that Harry puts at risk – along with his life – when an old army buddy returns to town, returns to the local jazz scene – and gets himself killed in an accident that might have been anything but.

Harry just can’t let it go. He and Leo had each other’s backs in Korea – in spite of the color line – and Harry feels like he has to have his old friend’s back one last time even if Leo isn’t around to see it. Because Leo isn’t around to see it.

Which gets Harry in way over his head – nearly six feet over his head. If the men hunting him even leave enough of him to get either identified or buried. Unless he gets them first.

Escape Rating A-: The description of the book doesn’t do this one justice. But it gives me a starting point to use to talk about the book and why it worked so well for me – especially after yesterday!

This is the kind of story that would have fit in extremely well with the male-centered, noirish thrillers that were very much in vogue in the 1960s when this story takes place. Series like John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee, Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer and Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct, among many others. But Harry’s story would have gone unpublished in his own time just as crimes against the black community would have been shoved under the carpet – hard – as Harry himself nearly is.

But what makes this story so compellingly readable is the combination of Harry’s character and the way that his pursuit of just a sliver of justice for his friend drives him forward. He’s every doggedly determined lone wolf blundering through an investigation that he’s not trained for, faces repeated roadblocks but just can’t let go. At the same time, his constant – and sometimes painfully reinforced – acknowledgement that the forces of law and order are arrayed against him because of his color, and that even if he’s technically right he’ll be judged wrong, feels real and true and unfortunately not all that historical at all.

The historical part of this mystery reads like it sits on the splintered crossroads between “the past is another country” and “the past is never dead. It’s not even past.” The institutionalized racism that Harry faces and has to work around is just as entrenched today as it was then – and all too frequently just as overt as well.

So the historical setting feels real and presents a clear and present danger, but what drives the story is Harry’s dogged determination. What makes it so compelling to follow, is that it isn’t just a cracking good mystery, it’s also well told and tightly edited in all the best ways to make the pace unrelenting.

(Upon reflection, part of what made yesterday’s book such a slog is that it sincerely needed someone to perform exactly this service. The bones of a good thriller were hidden under a lot of verbal flabbiness. I digress.)

The one thing keeping One-Shot Harry from being a sure shot at a full A grade is the ending. For a mystery to end satisfactorily, good needs to triumph and evil needs to get its just desserts. The perpetrator(s) need to be punished. Harry doesn’t exactly triumph at the end of this book – although from his perspective it could be said that his survival is triumph enough under the circumstances.

The men who committed his friend’s murder get exactly what they deserved. But it feels like punishing the puppets for what the hands up their asses did. They were tools, literally as well as figuratively. The owner of those hands walks away unscathed, because he’s white and rich and powerful and he has all the friends in high places to make sure nothing ever sticks to him. Harry doesn’t have a chance to bring him down and they both know it.

But there’s no catharsis for the reader in that acknowledgement or that ending. Very much on the other hand, that ending may not be satisfying but it is a whole hell of a lot more historically plausible. Harry really doesn’t have a chance to bring this bigwig down – at least not yet.

Harry’s “one-shot” at Mr. Big in this story doesn’t have to be his last. The ending isn’t a cliffhanger, but it isn’t closure either. It feels like Harry will be back and that this is just the start of what will hopefully be a long and eventually successful vendetta.

I certainly hope so because I can’t wait to read it.