Leonard Zinberg (1911-1968) was known to crime-noir readers as Ed Lacy. He authored nearly 30 paperback originals during the 1950s and 1960s. As prolific as his work was, Lacy's most successful novel was his ninth career effort, “Room to Swing” (1957). The book introduced the first African-American private-eye in Toussaint “Touie” Moore, a bold literary leap that earned Lacy an Edgar Award in 1958.
“Room to Swing” gains its fictional footing in a familiar way – a financially stressed New York gumshoe trailing a killer. Touie Moore is black, nearly destitute and has a lofty goal of running a successful detective business despite the numerous barriers. His girlfriend Sybil is begging Touie to work in the mailroom, and plenty of white police officers want him out of the private-eye business. Needless to say, Touie needs a big break.
A television producer named Kay approaches Touie about a new show called “You-Detective!” The pitch is that a fugitive will be profiled on television, complete with a sizzling backstory, with the promise of a cash payout for any lucky citizen that chances upon the dangerous criminal. The show's third episode will feature an alleged rapist from Ohio named Robert Thomas. Kay advises that Thomas works at a factory in New York City and that the network has a stooge that will phone him into the police claiming it was a result of watching the show. Touie is offered $1,500 to keep tabs on Thomas to be sure he doesn't quit his job or leave the show before the episode airs.
Without giving away anything more than what's promised on the back cover, Thomas ends up murdered and police believe that Touie is responsible. Lacy's presentation is segmented into days before Thomas' murder, prefaced by current events to tease the story to readers. I didn't particularly care for this style of storytelling as it made the book seem disjointed. This could have improved as a seamless story with a traditional start to finish pace. The bi-product of segmented storytelling is the loss of surprise. 3-2-1 leads to something, right? That left me bored with the first few segments dedicated to Touie's day to day operation. Granted, Lacy is presenting Touie's tenacity in adverse conditions, but it's recycled throughout. There's a lot of racists opposing Touie...living. But otherwise, the heart of the story doesn't reach fruition until page 85.
“Room to Swing” is a good, but not great, crime-noir. My speculation is that the novel's “against the grain” approach made it a hot commodity at the time of publication. Breaking social conformity was a sizable risk for Lacy, and it paid off in a big way. Arguably, this book placed Lacy on the literary map. He authored a sequel to entitled “Moment of Untruth” in 1964, changing the location from New York to Mexico. I enjoyed Touie enough to pursue the second novel.
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