Review

Stone Cribs

by Kris Nelscott

THIN
WALLS


Kris
Nelscott



St. Martin's Minotaur
Mystery

ISBN: 0312320442



Kris Nelscott's books take place in the late 1960s. They begin in
Memphis, capture the heat of the times as race relations boil over,
are shadowed by the Vietnam War, capture the tenor of the times
such as the protesters who were bludgeoned during the 1968
Democratic National Convention, chronicle the Black Panthers in
Chicago and are punctuated by other allusions to the culture of
that epochal time in American history. The setting reminds readers
of a time when more humane legislation began to emerge, and in
keeping with the courage of those who lived in that time, Nelscott
interestingly pairs her Afro-American hero, Smokey Dalton, with
Laura Hathaway, a white, rich, smart and very strong woman.

Bill [Smokey] Grimshaw is a can-do guy with big problems. He has
become the de facto guardian of Jimmy, a ten-year-old boy who
witnessed the assassination of Martin Luther King --- and can
testify to the fact that the shooter was not James Earl Ray. The
Memphis police and the FBI had Jimmy in their crosshairs when
Smokey plucked him from doom and the two fled to Chicago. There,
they use assumed names and walk a fine line when it comes to
talking about themselves. "Actually, my name is Smokey Dalton, but
I [have] been using the name Bill Grimshaw … because I had
been living with [friends] Althea and Franklin [Grimshaw, and
people assumed that was our name too.] It was safer to use the
assumed name … I even [had] fake identification made out in
the name William S. Grimshaw." Jimmy would be killed if the pair
ever surfaced and their true identities became known. Smokey
identifies and empathizes with the boy because he watched his own
parents get lynched.

Laura, Smokey's lover, is a woman who believes she can change the
brutal housing conditions in the Black Belt of Chicago's slums.
"Her father had started out as a small-time thief and had graduated
into a well-connected … 'businessman.' Most, if not all, of
his initial business dealings had to have been illegal at best.
Being a slumlord was legitimate [but] there were a lot of criminal
things he had done as well." When Laura decides to take command of
her father's businesses, his board of directors vehemently
discourages her from any such move. Their threats are less than
subtle.

Laura's attorney warns her to take one step at a time and try not
to make sweeping changes overnight. If she started to throw her
weight around, she could be thrown off the board and left
powerless. "I have to get rid of the team, vote my own shares, and
essentially take back the company." She explains to Smokey how he
fits into her plan "to restructure Sturdy, take it out of the
business of screwing [good people] and into the business of
improving the city --- for all the residents." She needs him to be
her building inspector and tells him, "I need someone I can trust
to examine the buildings we own and tell me what condition they're
in … I need someone who'll give the real information before I
request changes in an area."

Smokey agrees to Laura's proposal but is not content with just
looking over old buildings. Soon, a woman who says, "I hear you
help people find things … [approaches him]. I nodded, [and
let] her into the apartment. I'd gone back to what I did best ---
doing odd jobs for people who needed help. Most of the time, those
odd jobs involved detective work [and] I was getting an occasional
referral from black area lawyers." This woman's visit sets Smokey
on a road full of landmines and confrontation with racial hatreds
leading to multiple murders.

The thrust of the tension in THIN WALLS exudes from an empty house
that has been up for sale in a "fringe" neighborhood. Even though
the area is still predominantly white, Dr. Louis Foster, a black
dentist, planned to purchase the home for his wife as an
anniversary gift. The morning he went to take one last look at the
dwelling, he was murdered to keep him out of the community. His
wife has gotten no help from the white police, and the
"Afro-American Patrolman's League … said they'd see what they
could do, but they said sometimes there weren't any clues and there
was nothing to learn." Foster's body had been found in a park,
posed against a tree in an odd position. After hearing her out,
Smokey explains everything that can happen in an investigation ---
there's no telling what he might find under the rocks when he
starts snooping under them. When he is convinced that she
understands she might be opening a Pandora's box, he agrees to take
the case.

As he studies the crime scene photos, his "breath caught [and he]
wondered if Truman Johnson had seen these … [he] would bet
anything that he hadn't. Johnson was a detective with the Chicago
Police Department. [Smokey met him on another case and] he had told
[him] about two similar [murders.] The first had occurred in April
and another in July. But the victims in those cases had been
ten-year-old boys, not grown men." No one had yet made any
connections between the brutal slayings.

Jack Sinkovich is another cop with whom Smokey has a tenuous
relationship. This guy was at the 1968 convention and has been
haunted ever since by the sound of the crack of the skull of the
boy he clobbered that night. He tries very hard to make Smokey
understand that in his way he wants to redeem himself. Of him,
Smokey says, "I knew there was a good cop mixed in with the bad in
Sinkovich. I'd felt, ever since I'd met him, that the two of them
were at war." Thus, at the cost of his marriage and the loss of his
son, Sinkovich does slowly make progress in shedding his
bigotry.

With due diligence, hard work and cooperation, the men solve all of
the murders. "A good portion of the evidence [against the killer]
besides the knife consisted of car parts stored in a garage." The
murderer was killing black people who dared enter his neighborhood
and he took a souvenir from every car that belonged to his
victims.

But another big problem looms, this time for Jimmy and his friends.
A gang called The Blackstone Rangers has taken over the schoolyard
and is "recruiting" young boys who are too terrified to say "No!"
The hoods make clear that if they dared to refuse induction or if
they told anyone, death will reign down on them. Finally, one
morning, Dalton confronts these crazed boys and makes a deal with
them. An uneasy truce is reached. "As long as I remained a
forgotten incident … I was happy. Jimmy and I were free to
continue with our own lives … The Rangers gang didn't bother
[them] during the last few days of school, and [Grimshaw] had hopes
that they leave us alone for good."

Of course the Nelscott team not only solves the cases, they manage
to further cement friendships and a deep respect emerges between
the characters. This close bond is even more clearly iterated in
the next and most recent novel, STONE CRIBS. The same crime
fighting crew is featured --- including Laura and the problems she
faces in trying to change her company. In addition, a coterie of
new characters enters their lives, schlepping by their troubles
with them.

The book begins after a formal black tie fundraising affair; just
as Smokey and Laura are ready to open the door to his apartment,
they hear a cry. "Isn't that where your neighbor lives? The
question wasn't as inane as it sounded. The only neighbor of mine
that Laura had met was Marvella Walker, a stunning woman who had
set her sights on me the moment I had moved into the building. She
had made Laura's visits so uncomfortable that I had to tell her to
lie off."

The couple tried to open Marvella's door "but [it was] jammed, as
if something were pushed against it. Through the crack in the door,
[he] could see a woman's bare foot on the … floor, a bit of
satin robe, and a blood stain that appeared to be growing." Smokey
and Laura do manage to get inside the apartment, only to find
"Marvella missing and a woman bleeding to death in her living room.
Something awful had happened" … but that would have to wait;
they had to get the unknown female to the hospital.

Readers should keep in mind that these books are set in our recent
past and record a time before many of the laws we now have in place
were scripted. Certainly Roe v. Wade was a long time in the future.
Thus abortions were a crime. Hospitals had to report both the woman
and the abortionist, or they would not treat her. If she refused to
give up the name of the butcher who tore up her insides, she was
left to die in the hallway.

But in fiction these kinds of horrific events turn out as the plot
demands. Laura fights like a mother tiger protecting her babies and
gets the physician on duty to take care of the unknown woman. Her
loss of blood had not abated and she was bleeding to death. When
the identity of the woman is discovered, the lives of everyone
close to her are radically changed. But this is only one issue that
confronts Smokey. The other is to find Marvella, and the third
comes as a result of the job he is doing for Laura.

He has to inspect houses on Chicago's West Side … " the part
of the [city] everyone pointed to when they talked about slums,
urban decay and inner cities out of control … the place where
dislocated families went, people without connections, and people
without a lot of hope. The anger here was palpable, as well as the
frustration. It seemed like every time this part of the city made
some progress, something happened to make that progress go away."
And while readers are told that the first anniversary of Martin
Luther King's assassination did not bring the burning and looting
of the previous year, the powers-that-be still insisted upon
referring to riots as "incidents."

When Smokey visits his first building, he is surprised to find a
small family of squatters. He carefully gets their story and finds
help for them at a safe house. When he gets back to work, he
notices some dirt that has been rooted in by a dog. When he takes a
closer look, he realizes he is gazing into a grave. "I hated to
have contact with the police. There were [two] officers I could
trust to a small degree --- Truman Johnson and Jack Sinkovich" ---
[but] Smokey is still hesitant." He is acutely aware that he is in
"enemy-gang" territory and he is exposed out on the street. Black
Panthers are crowding him and he is literally between a rock and a
hard place. He has to convince them he is not a "Tom" and that he
is not an enemy. After some negotiation and fast talk, the Panthers
back off. Smokey then calls the cops and makes a second phone call
to Laura to tell her that it is going to be on the news. Everyone
was on edge, everyone was sad and everyone was afraid.

Kris Nelscott is a wonderful storyteller. Her characters are
three-dimensional, which makes them believable and sympathetic when
it is appropriate or terrifying when the mood changes. The gangs,
slumlords and Black Panthers are as well portrayed as the overtly
violent factions comprised of bullies, zombie drug users, dirty
cops and the betrayals among the villains themselves. The rest of
the characters stand tall and play fair. They could be victims if
they allowed themselves that "luxury" but they don't. Their
strength is laudable. Nelscott is meticulous in her plotting as it
fits into its historical juxtapositions. Each novel features some
of the same characters, but their experiences are always new and
they reach higher levels of confidence as time moves them
forward.

In STONE CRIBS, as in THIN WALLS, Smokey Dalton is the moving force
in the crime solving process. However, without the help of his
friends on the police force and others in the community, he might
fail. Both books are imbued with a steady calm that radiates out
from Smokey's character. And while some of the characters are
serialized, they never become static or stereotypical. Nelscott is
an author who has not gotten the attention she deserves. One can
only hope that readers will seek out her novels before she is left
at the back of the book stacks. Her work is a historical, political
and fascinating addition to the mystery genre.




Reviewed by Barbara Lipkien Gershenbaum on January 24, 2011

Stone Cribs
by Kris Nelscott

  • Publication Date: February 1, 2004
  • Genres: Fiction, Mystery
  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Minotaur Books
  • ISBN-10: 0312287844
  • ISBN-13: 9780312287849