Gary Phillips at Adventures in Crime & Space

I dig crime fiction a lot. I especially dig L.A.-based crime fiction. Pioneered by Thirties and Forties masters Raymond (The Big Sleep) Chandler and Paul (A Fast One) Cain, it's a tradition that thrives today through writers like James Ellroy and Michael Connelly, novelists who dumped the trench coat and fedora motifs in the Cuisinart but still echo the old tradition as surely as there's a train whistle and field holler somewhere in every end-of-the-millennium blues song. And if Walter Mosley (Devil in a Blue Dress) woke up the genre to the fact that contemporary black writers can jam on noir riffs like juke joints, long shadows, and mean streets as surely as Michael Jordan is the Mozart of the hardwood, then Gary Phillips, author of Violent Spring, Perdition, U.S.A., and Bad Night Is Falling should positively nail its devotees to the wall.

Born in South Central L.A., Phillips started writing when he was in his teens. "I always liked mysteries," he says, "but growing up black, you're not represented. I didn't find out about Chester Himes or Donald Goines until I was in college. It was like stumbling in backward to discover a tradition, which made me think about how I'd want to show L.A." In Bad Night, Phillips' latest, black detective Ivan Monk goes after the culprits behind the firebombing of a Latino housing project. Monk gets sucked into a maelstrom involving a turf war between black and Latino street gangs, corrupt business, and political operatives - a malignant, corpse-scattering matrix with roots going back to the `65 Watts rebellion. With its fast-paced narrative stew of shifting viewpoints, hard-boiled lyricism, explosive tension, and neo-realist reportage from contemporary L.A., Bad Night is as hot as two rats humping in a wool sock.

"I like noir," says Phillips, "because it's an ambiguous form, one that suggests we're buffeted in our lives by outside forces that we can't control. Los Angeles is also a lot like that. It's a place of both promise and ruin, and those themes vie for prominence in my books." Take it from me, Phillips makes those themes rock like hell. Lovers of tough crime fiction, do yourself a favor: Buy a book by the man and see for yourself. -Jesse Sublett

Gary Phillips will appear at Adventures in Crime & Space, Sat., August 15, 3-5 pm. For info call 473-2665.

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