A Cool Camera Lens: An Interview with Gary Phillips
WRITTEN BY BEN BERGONZI
One-Shot Harry (Soho Press, 2022) is a foray into recent history by prolific crime novelist Gary Phillips. The central character is a tabloid press photographer, clearly inspired by the iconic image maker Arthur Fellig (‘Weegee’). Although Harry Ingram uses the same type of camera as Weegee, also listens in to police radio traffic, and shares a penchant for cigars, the difference is that Harry is Black, and rather than New York, he works in South Central Los Angeles. We are introduced to Harry at the pivotal period of spring 1963, in the days leading up to Martin Luther King’s visit to the city to address a capacity-crowd rally. Harry learned his photographic trade as an enlisted man during the Korean War, but due to the limited range of publications to which he can submit work, he has to supplement his income with process-serving assignments. Both his jobs can be dangerous. Within the early chapters he has to disarm an aggrieved party who comes at him with a baseball bat, and then to rebuild his camera after having it wrecked by a racist cop. But these annoyances are nothing to what follows. Harry is embroiled in a shadowy right-wing conspiracy to bring an end to Martin Luther King’s Freedom Movement, but as he discovers, there is hostility from some on the political left as well.
I asked Phillips about the historical background and why he chose it. ‘In my youth I was a community activist in South Central L.A. In that regard, I came into contact with older civil rights stalwarts from back in the day. Sitting around the campfire as it were, I heard first-hand accounts of their various campaigns, an infusion in me. This along with hearing tales from my dad about the heyday of Central Avenue with its jazz clubs and such. I was hooked on learning about the past of people and neighborhoods – how these factors invariably shaped the present. The idea is to incorporate any given history as naturalistically as you can in the narrative, avoiding info dumps as they say. Try to be judicious in what you use. Even being mindful of that edict, I realize I still got carried away now and then in the novel.’
There is also a lot of well-realised characterization across a broad cast, from Harry’s wisecracking male friends to the enigmatic woman with whom he finds romance. Asked whether the dialogue has a life of its own, the author replied:
‘I always write an outline of the book. Yet I also know once I’m into it, I’ll change, adapt and shift passages as I go along. I try to inhabit the skin of my characters, what this one would say here or the other one in this other situation. I hope in that way it keeps the dialogue and the interplay of the characters fresh. Mind you, that means a lot of rewriting as well, since what they say – and sometimes what they don’t say –can illuminate character and move the plot forward too.’
We are in a cool era in music here. Harry meets real figures from such varied parts of the jazz spectrum as Johnny Otis, Dexter Gordon and Lena Horne. His creator writes to more eclectic sounds – from blues to Farsi rock, to funk/jazz soundtracks from 1970s Japanese movies.
As a regular contributor to graphic novels, Phillips has a very strong visual sense. ‘In my head I see the scene and want to convey that in words to the reader. Not an overabundance of words but enough to seed the imagery, if only fleetingly, for the reader. In the trolley junkyard showdown, we see and feel what’s happening as Harry does, his uncertainty and fear if he’ll make it out of there alive in that graveyard of rusting steel.’
I asked Phillips about the memorable passage where Harry says, ‘The aims of the Confederacy are alive and well in plenty of white folks’ hearts. Black man as president, well, that fella would be living in a glass house. Every step he took, every sneeze he made would be a reason to find fault with him.’ The author said he was prophesying the Obama presidency, but that he was also thinking of Black sporting pioneers like Jackie Robinson and Althea Gibson, or indeed of Dr Charles Drew, the physician who pioneered advancements in blood transfusions.
At the start of the book Harry is a detached observer. As in many crime stories, he is forced to turn detective. By the end of the book, he is impelled by the conspiracy he discovers to become politically engaged. Hoping his adventures will continue in future books, I wondered how this emotional engagement might affect his work as a reporter and photographer.
Phillips replied, ‘Your question has me examining a bit of my subconscious that worked its way into who Harry is. He’s not Philip Marlowe so much, emotionally engaged to a fault, as he’s more in the mold of Lew Archer – a wary detachment to some extent. He has feelings, but he can be the icy observer, taking these photos of people having died by violence. Though he does come to question this, what is it that motivates him, surely not salacious voyeurism. He does though employ his skills in trying to find out what happened to his friend, his foxhole buddy. As Harry dives deeper, he eventually does an act in the course of the story wherein he takes a step over the line to protect his lady love. Ultimately it seems the detective in any given investigation, also investigates himself, doesn’t he?’
The result of Phillips’ sensitive approach to character and situation is a story that is enjoyably complex, each conversation or phone call or snatched sight through a telephoto lens leading us, and Harry, to discover more details of a suspenseful web of intrigue.
About the contributor: Ben Bergonzi is one of the UK Reviews Editors for Historical Novels Review.
Published in Historical Novels Review | Issue 101 (August 2022)