Created by Ed Lacy
Pseudonym of Leonard S. Zinberg
“If he had a cellophane head I couldn’t have seen his little bird brain working any cleaner.”
Generally considered the first truly credible Black eye, TOUSSAINT MARCUS MOORE (now there’s a name with more than a few Black nationalist overtones) made his debut in the Edgar Award-winning (for Best Novel) Room to Swing in 1957. In that book, a background investigation on behalf of a reality-based TV show called You-Detective! (which wouldn’t seem that far out of place even today) takes Moore from the Big Apple all the way to Bingston, Ohio.
Bingston, it turns out, is a tighty-whitey one-horse town located on the Kentucky border — not really “a mean town for the colored, just a little old-fashioned,” as a local kindly puts it. It’s there that Moore is called “boy” (and worse) more times in six hours, he notes, than he has been during the rest of his life. The juxtaposition of a relatively hip, urban black guy (complete with middle-class aspirations and even some rather twee affectations — he smokes a pipe and drives a Jag) and the less-than-enlightened rural small-town mindset was a conflict that would reverberate through much subsequent crime fiction, including John Ball’s much ballyhooed classic In the Heat of the Night (1965), which came out eight years later.
But Lacy was there first.
In fact, you could make an argument that Room to Swing was “woke” before most of the nattering, finger-pointing wokies were born. There’s a refreshingly open-ended liberalism on display in the book that dares to look without flinching not just upon racism but also upon homosexuality– a remarkable thing even now, never mind more than sixty years ago. Yet even as Toussaint strives to do the right thing, and clear himself of a trumped-up murder rap, Moore contemplates chucking the whole detective business for a safer job at the post office.
That may not be something that Mike Hammer or any of the other he-men eyes of the 1950s would have considered, but then, Hammer wasn’t Black, and for Toussaint, a good job with steady pay and relatively discrimination-free, was nothing to sneeze at.
And Toussaint does subsequently go to work for the post office. Fortunately for mystery fans, he came out of retirement in 1964’s Moment of Untruth, which is almost as good as Room To Swing.
Author Ed Lacy (actually Leonard S. Zinberg, who interestingly enough was white), also created hard-boiled detectives Hal Darling, Barney Harris, Marty Bond, John O’Hara, Matt Ranzino and William “Billy” Wallace.
- “I didn’t bother making words. It boiled down to a white cop and a black me, and he had the difference in his hand.”
— Room to Swing
- “Room To Swing remains high on my list of hardboiled mystery novels. There was a lyricism, almost a poetry, to the writing that touched not only the powerful, melancholy storyline but also the elegant and evocative place descriptions. I’ve always regarded this as a true masterpiece. Certainly, its take on race makes it a milestone, too. But the sociology of it too often overshadows the sad truth of the tale itself. I liked several other Lacy novels very much, too, but Room to Swing is the one that got him into heaven.”
— Ed Gorman
THE DICK OF THE DAY
- The Edgar Awards Revisited: Room to Swing by Ed Lacy (Best Novel; 1958)
Our pal Scott Adlerberg takes a look at Room to Swing (January 2019, Criminal Elements)
- “I Dunit”
A 1966 article on the writing life by Ed Lacy. (August 1966, P.S. Magazine)