Downtown Strut by Ed Ifkovic
Downtown Strut by Ed Ifkovic (Poisoned Pen Press, 2013) is the fourth mystery featuring Edna Ferber and is set in 1927 as our heroic wordsmith prepares for the dual launch of Show Boat and The Royal Family on Broadway. This book is interesting on two counts. The first is that we have a man writing a first-person narrative as a woman. The second is that the subject matter of the book is essentially an exploration of the racism in the Flapper Years before the Great Depression hit. The title of the book is, of course, a reference to “Darktown Strutter’s Ball” and sets the tone rather appropriately. This was recorded by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band in 1917 and it’s gone on to become what we politely call a “jazz standard”, but it’s perhaps rather better known today with the title sanitised to “Downtown” rather than Darktown. In other words, we no longer feel comfortable referring to Harlem as Darktown. This area of New York is something of an anomaly. In the forty-year period between what’s still fondly called the Gay Nineties and the Great Depression, Harlem changed from being predominantly Jewish to African American. A symptom of this transition was the “Darktown Follies”, a review produced in 1913 at the Lafayette Theatre on 7th and 132nd Street — a review that, thanks to Florenz Ziegfeld, moved to Broadway within a year of its opening. As you might imagine, there was real co-operation between African American musicians and Jewish impresarios when there was money to be made. The rest of the time, the relationship between the races was not so good.
Our real-world narrator and other historically significant people of that period portrayed in this novel occupied an awkward gatekeeper role. The problem when one group of immensely talented people are the victims of discrimination, is where you draw the line between a patron, a benefactor and an exploiter. By definition, patrons control access to different levels of social acceptability and confer certain rights to what we might term privileges. In some cases, this can be the power to give people work and thereby some dignity in the world. In other cases, it’s the power to use the casting couch for sexual exploitation, giving people hope and ultimately denying them respect. Nominally, America might have abolished slavery but, in 1927, the practical experience of African Americans had only marginally improved. Even in the North which had been the driver of social change, the status of African Americans remained equivocal.
It’s against this background that our narrator returns home unexpectedly and discovers a group of writers and artists meeting in her living room. This is the “fault” of Waters Turpin, her housekeeper’s son, who had decided to host Bella Davenport and her boyfriend Lawson Hicks, Ellie Payne, Roddy Parsons, Harriet Porter and Freddie Holder. Once our heroine has overcome her surprise, she recognises some from a previous meeting, and is sufficiently interested to get to know them all better. This immediately feels fake — a necessary plot device to get the story going, particularly when Jed Harris walks in on the group. Although it gives our amateur sleuth a chance to assess each individual, make a rough assessment of their relationships, and then study their reaction to the “powerful” Broadway producer, it’s one of these horrible coincidences. She just happens to return home and then, not expecting her to be there, Jed Harris walks in. There are many less contrived ways to get the show on the road. As if that’s not enough of a coincidence, a few pages later, our heroine is discovering the body of Roddy Parsons in his Harlem apartment. Yes, the overt racism of the detective who comes along to investigate and the innuendos in the press as to what Edna Ferber was doing in Harlem to find a young African American dead in his bed are credible. But the whole set-up is unsatisfactory.
As we might expect, the white detective rounds up the local older black guy with a record and mental health problems, and pins the murder on him as a burglary gone wrong. This offends the sensibilities of our heroine who’s convinced there’s a lot more at play. We then get a densely written set of meetings between our heroine and the group members during which it becomes obvious they all have doubtful alibis as to where they were at the relevant time. More intriguingly, it’s also obvious that Jed Harris is lying about his connections to members of this group and that they all had reason to resent both Harris and the dead guy. Sadly I stopped reading about two-thirds of the way through and skipped to the end to see whodunnit and why. It’s not that it’s badly written. In fact, the prose is, at times, quite powerful and reasonably convincing using a female protagonist. It’s the feeling the tone of the book is wrong. Whenever anyone sets out to write an historical novel, there’s an immediate question of how much history to include.
In this instance, the technical challenge is how to make the text informative using a first-person narrator. By definition, this woman has no need to think critically about her own life and her reactions to everyday events. She is what she is — a Pulitzer prize-winning author and informal member of the Algonquin Round Table (a fact not mentioned in the parts of this book I read carefully). With an omniscient author, it’s easier to make judgements of the various characters involved. If someone is acting in an overtly racist manner, the author can use appropriate signifiers to communicate an emotional response. Even in a book intended to be an accurate historical portrayal of racist attitudes, the author can communicate the awfulness of the behaviour on display. What might have been considered entirely normal then, can seem outrageous today. But this author carefully avoids being judgmental. He does not condemn his female protagonist for being a creature of her time. Whereas he could have shown her debating whether to confront the racism of the day, he chooses not to because that would focus on her moral cowardice in not, for example, going into a convenient eating establishment with a young African American in tow and demanding service. She never gives a second thought to having a live-in African American servant. Slavery by dependency is just as much slavery. The result is all rather mealy-mouthed and unsatisfactory.
I was seriously disappointed that a modern white man could not write a better book about the racism in the early part of the twentieth century. What the book needs is a moral centre from which the author can comment on and, if appropriate, disapprove the events and attitudes described. In my opinion, the failure to produce a coherent subtext of disapproval leaves it to the readers to approve the racism on display. There’s a simple rule of interpretation at play here. If an author intentionally writes about racist behaviour and does not condemn it, it must be within the scope of the author’s intention that readers approve what they read. Put another way, the author is, at the very least, reckless whether readers will approve. Indeed, it must be foreseeable to the author that some who read this book will be racially prejudiced. Silence from an author can therefore be seen by such readers as passive approval or encouragement to those readers to approve racist behaviour. Downtown Strut is a book that communicates information in a moral vacuum. It offended my sensibilities to read it.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.