Black and Blue in Harlem by Delia C. Pitts | Crime Fiction | Friesen Press | 133 pages | Review by Niki Igbaroola
There’s something wonderful about falling into a book and feeling, almost immediately, like you’ve known the protagonist for a long while. Delia C. Pitts’s Black and Blue in Harlem is a book that gives you just that feeling. The protagonist, Rook, from the onset has a clear voice and manner that speaks to a loaded past, one that you are immediately desperate to unpack and sympathise with. Learning that Rook is a war veteran whose life, post-service, has been shaped by trauma and a lack of governmental support speaks to the reality of many war vets, particularly those who are African American. That Rook is forced to deal with his demons alone, often with the aid of alcohol, allows for the reader to see him as a complex character – as both hero and pitiful figure – as they join him on his journey.
Breathing Life Into Characters
Pitts’s talent with characterisation goes beyond her protagonist, covering every character that plays a role in this murder mystery. The novel has a rich cast of characters, who each uniquely breathe life into a story that is impossible not to delve in to. Pitts’s novel blends the pressing murder mystery case with the everyday relationships of several characters, which allows for the crux of the novel to be about more than just murder. Black and Blue in Harlem tackles issues around race, trauma, gender, and love in subtle but powerful ways, elevating what could have been a single focus story to a multi-dimensional, layered narrative that challenges the reader to think beyond the context of people’s actions to the meaning behind their motives.
Central to this narrative is the dynamic relationship between Rook, a Black and Latino war veteran and a private investigator and Archie, a Chinese police officer in the New York Police Department. Their connection, born in part from a shared experience of being or having been racial minorities in governmental organisations, is an interesting, albeit, a baffling one at times. There are moments where their interactions appear brotherly and others where there appears to be some contention between the two. We see the latter particularly when Rook’s drinking or Archie’s profession as a police officer takes centre stage in their interactions causing palpable, riveting friction.
Race As More Than A Punchline
The title of the novel, Black and Blue in Harlem is a loaded one especially given the long, historic tensions between Black bodies and the police pointedly across inner cities in America. Interestingly, despite the loaded insinuations in the title, the way race appears in this narrative is subtle in the sense that rather than make overt references to race, Pitts allows for the character’s experiences and society’s reactions to the characters to tell the story of how race impacts the ways in which they move through life.
One of the more beautiful ways we see race reflected in this narrative is in the way it is used to showcase the community in which Rook lives. Pitts creates a multicultural society without ever falling into the trap of stereotyping characters. Through actions like naming and subtle shifts in the manner of speech, Pitts is able to bring to life the history and heritage of the characters, allowing for the reader a better visualisation that improves, overall, the reading experience.
Content Over Length
For a relatively short novel, Black and Blue in Harlem is engaging in a way that makes you wish it were slightly longer so that more time could be spent in the world Pitts creates. The web surrounding the murder, so intricately and delicately woven, absorbs you so well from the start, that you find yourself balancing a desire to sink into the narrative with a curiosity that pushes you to get to the finish line for that all too delicious reveal.
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