Monday, July 23, 2007


Tennyson Hardwick is a working actor, though not a star, and formerly a -- ahem -- paid escort for rich women. The impolite term is: gigolo. (A masculinized version of a French word for "dance hall girl," in case you were wondering.)

The name is fun, on both ends: "Hardwick" is easy enough so you'd have to squint to miss it. His friends call him "Ten," though he admits he's only about eight-and-a-half ...

That gives you a feeling for the relaxed tone of this mystery novel, a three-way collaboration from Blair Underwood, with Tananarive Due, and Steve Barnes. Their protagonist is good-looking, intelligent, moral, and adept -- and you could say the same about the novel and the writing.

Hardwick's father, a retired police captain, is recovering from a stroke, and father and son have never gotten along. Acting jobs are thin, Ten is making a living doing commercials, and out of the biz of sex-for-money, when he runs into an old girlfriend from his professional days, Serena, a rich and famous rap star with the stage name "Afrodite," another play on words.

The old spark between the two flares, they get together, and after some athletic, erotic and you-might-even-learn-something, highly-detailed-sex, Ten goes home happier than he's been in a long time. Serena has something troubling her, but she doesn't want to get into it, and Ten lets it lie.

It's probably not much of a spoiler to suggest that when the hero of a mystery novel bumps into a beautiful, and somewhat-troubled, ex-flame in the first chapter and has the time of his recent life, the chances of her surviving much further into the book are probably not too good.

If you are a mystery reader, you know what is coming next.

Naturally, the prime suspect in Afrodite's death is Tennyson Hardwick, and there is a lot of circumstantial evidence. Just as naturally, the police don't want to put forth too much effort looking for another possibility since Ten is such a Christmas-wrapped gift; thus he has to set out to figure out who really did it. Because if he doesn't, nobody else will.

And you know what? It's a hoot. A fun, clever, romp, with characters you might expect in a story centered around hip-hop and rap, but in whom there are found depths beyond the cardboard gangstas usually offered up.

And there are some wonderful Hollywood gags sprinkled throughout like pearls.

Ten is no Shaft -- he is tough, but not Superman. He can shoot, but he's not Martin Riggs. He can fight, but he's not Bruce Lee. And he sometimes dances and makes intuitive leaps, but just as often, he slogs through the process of hunting for a killer.

This is a book that fills a need for an audience not often well-served in literature, people who are interested in black protagonists who aren't a white guy's idea of what black is. A good writer, no matter his or her color, can do the research, of course, and fool you; but if you are a member of the group, it's easier -- you know the tropes without having to ask. It rings true.

I had no trouble identifying with Ten, white cracker redneck that I am, and the triad of storytellers keep things moving without ever hitting a dull spot. You are in the hands of expert writers here, masters of their craft, and the prose flows like warm oil on clean glass.

Despite the name, Casanegra is not L.A. noir, but nether is it a primary-color cartoon, and while I'd rate it NC-17, for sex and some violence, there's a lot to like in this book. Might not be the one you want to give to your granny who loves Miss Marple, but serious mystery readers with catholic tastes will have no problems here at all.

Of course, since I know two of the three people who built this house, it is tempting to try and figure out who constructed which room, who painted which walls, laid which carpet -- that's an occupational hazard for a writer. But whoever made the last pass homogenized it, blended it smoothly, so that there aren't any jarring cuts that make it obvious more than one writer laid hands on the manuscript.

That's harder than you might think, and done well here.

I think there is another Hardwick adventure in the pipeline, and I hope so. This one was a fun read, and I look forward to the next one.

And while it might not be able to make it to the big screen, Hardwick and his adventures would make a great HBO or Showtime series, where they would have the room to develop him and his world to good effect. And if they didn't give the lead to Blair Underwood, and sign Due and Barnes to produce and story-edit, they'd be idiots.)

Casanegra, Simon & Schuster's Atria imprint, July, 2007, ISBN # 13-978-0-7432-8731-9


Anonymous said...

I just started this book, and it drew me in from the start. I picked it up because I'm a Due and Barnes fan, and I knew that Underwood had optioned Due's My Soul to Keep. I even saw a trailer for it. My guess is the movie got lost in production hell, but my fingers are crossed they'll still be able to get it made. But I digress: I'm looking forward to seeing how Casanegra ends, but at the same time, I'm hoping it won't because I'm enjoying it so. -- LT

Steve Perry said...

Barnes and Tee are more than passing adept at this stuff, and if you like the book, there will probably be others -- it seems to be selling well, and that's the bottom line when it comes to seeing more -- assuming the writers want to keep doing them.