Few mix politics and pulp as well as Gary Phillips. Few are as qualified. A former labor organizer and activist, he is still involved with issues in L.A. He is also one of the most well read in the genre. I spent some time with him last year in the Bouchercon book room at a table specializing in 30s and 40s pulps. He could talk about any author they had, particularly the obscure ones. It’s this combination of social awareness and bravado story telling that make him such a unique voice.
He is probably best known for his Ivan Monk private eye series. Deeply rooted in Compton, Monk owns a doughnut shop as well as his one-man investigation business. He also lives with a Japanese American judge who provides a foil both romantic and political for Monk. Picture Shaft, a bit older, a little mellower (but still a bad ass), and more civically engaged.
The first Monk book, Violent Spring, involved the discovery of a Korean merchant’s body at a groundbreaking ceremony a year after the Rodney King Riots. Monk’s search for the killer pits him against street gangs, politicians, businessman, and some bad history. In many ways it set the the standard for his body of work. Instead of using a mystery plot as a soapbox for issues, the politics serve the story, fueling Gary’s bullet paced writing. His style is something of a throwback to the hard boiled 50sauthors like Dan J. Marlowe, Peter Rabe, and early Westlake (I’m sure Gary could reference some more accurate names.)
Several of his books veer more towards the pulp side. The Jook, his story of a disgraced football player hustling to hold onto his money and glory, is practically a Once Upon A Time In The West version or noir fiction, taking practically every plotline and trope in the genre, giving a heady hard boiled mix. The Perpetrators is a violent road trip that gives any four color comic a run for its money in over the top action. He’s even written comics, most notable, Angel Town and Cowboys for Vertigo and The Rinse, a crime comic about a money launderer.
He latest novel is The Warlord Of Willow Ridge. The story concerns O’Connor, a roaming criminal who chooses a foreclosed home in a gated community to squat. He catches the eye of his neighbors and becomes their unwitting protector. It’s a mix of stranger-rides-into-town western, crime novel, and satire on the SNL crisis and post-crash suburban life. Leave it to Gary to color with more than one crayon and give us something to think about while he entertains the hell out of us.