A black detective deals with harsh reality in L.A.



Gar Anthony Haywood

St. Martin's

216 pages. $17.95 Literally dozens of mysteries are published each month in this crime-ridden country. The various schools within the genre are all well-represented, with new spins on old formulas constantly being introduced to keep an insatiable public amused.

Currently, for instance, the mean streets of America are full of guitar-toting, wisecracking shamuses who solve crimes with alacrity and possess deductive skills that might have impressed Sherlock Holmes himself. Some, such as Kinky Friedman and Linda Barnes, are even worth reading.

It is with some relief, then, that we greet the works of writers whose characters are free of gimmicks, live by a code that is based on something other than fear of unemployment and take the tough cases knowing that something is at stake besides their racquetball reservations. Almost anyone can come up with a different twist on the Philip Marlowe model or a cruel new M.O. for their serial killer, but not everyone can tell a story in the way it should be told.

Gar Anthony Haywood is just such a writer and one deserving of greater attention by the book-buying masses. His contribution to the genre is Aaron Gunner, a private eye clearly cast from the Marlowe mold but one whose environment -- south-central Los Angeles -- provides him with a unique and important voice.

"The boy just kept crying," Gunner says about a young homeboy he's being paid to observe. "He had a smooth brown complexion and a handsome, unmarked face, and tears were cutting a swath through the thin film of grime on his cheeks. He was just a baby, 6, maybe 7 years old, but he was already making plans for his own funeral, like his buddies were down the street. They just didn't know it, yet."

Gunner had gotten to this point after being enlisted -- reluctantly, of course -- to correct an injustice that involved police brutality and public perceptions of law enforcement in that troubled community. That Gunner is a black man on the wrong side of popular sentiment concerning a police shooting of a neighborhood youth -- he's trying to clear the name of a much-feared white cop -- adds fuel to an already incendiary situation.

Also energizing the drama in "You Can Die Trying" is that Gunner gets as much resistance from police officers as he does from the community:

"One was always risking a broken neck playing cops with cops, no matter what you were trying to prove or who you were trying to vindicate, and only morons didn't know it."

Following along with Gunner on his crusade, the reader gets to experience a post-riot south-central Los Angeles that is deeply scarred yet unbowed. It is a brutal world authentically rendered, and its inhabitants are motivated in equal measure by their poverty, fear, despair and pride.

Yet what makes this book so remarkable are the portraits of cops, especially those whose views have been twisted over lengthy careers by the harsh realities and dangerous attitudes of those they are sworn to serve and protect.

Mr. Haywood would be worth reading even if he weren't one of the genre's very few African-American writers. Like the estimable Walter Mosley, and Chester Himes before him, Mr. Haywood's the real thing, all right, a formidable artist with something important to say about some of the most troubling issues of our day.

And he tells a good story.

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