Gary Phillips is a writer more readers should know. Over a 30-year career, he has written detective novels, historical mysteries, science fiction, westerns, and comics and has edited several anthologies, including 2013’s Black Pulp and The Obama Inheritance, a conspiracy-noir collection that won a 2018 Anthony Award. His first book, Violent Spring, came out in 1994 and introduced Los Angeles private investigator Ivan Monk; it takes place during the 1992 conflagration following the verdict in the police beating of Rodney King.
The four books in the Monk series offer a guided tour of late-20th-century Los Angeles, featuring a sometimes dizzying array of street gangs, developers, skinheads, and community activists. Phillips’s writing has long been infused with big ideas and a scathing analysis of American greed, corruption, and racism. His insights are influenced, in part, by his work as a community organizer around police-abuse issues and as a union rep and nonprofit leader in post-1992 Los Angeles.
Phillips’s new novel, One-Shot Harry, is the first in a planned series set in 1963 Los Angeles. It revolves around a Korean War vet named Harry Ingram, who works as a freelance photographer for Black newspapers like the California Eagle—the oldest African American newspaper in the West—and the Los Angeles Sentinel while juggling a side hustle as a process server. Ingram covers everything, from domestic disputes to Martin Luther King Jr.’s Freedom Rally at South Los Angeles’s Wrigley Field. He is a fictional melding of the New York photojournalist Weegee and Harry Adams, a Los Angeles photographer whose quick work documenting everyday life for the city’s Black press earned him the nickname Phillips gives to his main character.
Ingram is deeply committed to community as well as to his friendships with working-class men of color. Central to the novel are his domino-playing buddies—a shopkeeper, a semi-legitimate businessman, and a Japanese American funeral director. Another friend is a blind veteran who runs the grocery store below Ingram’s apartment. The photographer also has white friends, including Ben Kinslow, a jazz trumpeter and chauffeur, who reconnects with him at Hollywood Park while driving for a wealthy businessman.
Kinslow invites Ingram to an integrated party in the exclusive Sugar Hill section of West Adams, where they rub shoulders with the Dandridge Sisters and Nat King Cole. Politics are also in the mix—Ingram discusses the March on Washington, planned for later that year, with a journalist from the Nation, who thinks it will be a watershed event. Ingram’s not so sure: “Crackers digging in their heels to preserve the way of life they like has usually been the response to any forward motion us colored folks have tried.” Later, Kinslow sits in for an improvised set with bandleader Johnny Otis and a young Joe Sample.
Like Ingram, who hopes to leverage his conversation with the Nation reporter into shooting King’s upcoming Freedom Rally for the magazine, Kinslow also has a dream. He wants to open a nightclub where Ingram would be the house photographer. Then Kinslow is killed in a one-car wreck in the Hollywood Hills. Ingram is certain the crash was no accident and vows to find out who murdered his compatriot.
The search takes him across Southern California. Phillips details the period with a keen eye that illuminates the region’s history, from the racist cops of Chief William H. Parker’s LAPD to retired police lieutenant Tom Bradley’s run for city council.
Bradley is backed by a coalition of progressive-to-left supporters, among them Anita Claire, an independent-minded mathematician. Ingram meets her at the party in Sugar Hill.
As he romances Claire at spots like the now-shuttered Pacific Ocean Park, Ingram also investigates Kinslow’s death. Among his suspects are members of the Association of Merchants and Industrialists, modeled after a real-life group of Southern California anti-unionists that included developer Lucky Baldwin, civil engineer William Mulholland, and the publisher of the Los Angeles Times. Ingram discovers the association members’ murky connections to political and economic skulduggery in the city. Things become more complicated when Claire, the mixed-race daughter of longtime Communists, asks Ingram to help find the diary of a friend’s father, a party sympathizer whose notes are incriminating.
Phillips’s encyclopedic knowledge of the history of Los Angeles’s economic development and progressive politics deepens the plot of One-Shot Harry even as it becomes difficult to determine how all the threads will come together. Most are tied up by the novel’s tense climactic scenes. The loose ends that remain—including the arrival of a new domino player with a connection to Ivan Monk—hold a tantalizing promise of further adventures.•