The third standalone novel in Delia C. Pitts’ “Ross Agency Mystery” series, BLACK AND BLUE IN HARLEM, follows SJ Rook as he investigates the apparent suicide of his elderly neighbor and social worker Nomie George, after she throws herself from the fifteenth floor of their apartment building. As Rook tries to unravel this tangled case, he meets a cast of colorful characters: from a troubled pastor and a local mobster to a simple-minded, albeit kindhearted delivery man.
While its mystery is undoubtedly intriguing, the heart and the soul of BLACK AND BLUE IN HARLEM are its locales and denizens. Pitts’ novels are rightfully described as “neighborhood noir” (a genre of crime fiction characterized by cynicism, fatalism, and moral ambiguity). From the beginning, the novel establishes a community populated by vividly depicted characters who are all, in some way, connected to each other. That this is the third novel in a series actually helps make the story better, as it adds to an impression of a shared history.
The novel’s protagonist, SJ Rook, is a thoroughly decent man who, in his quiet way, always tries to do the right thing. Violence revolts him–as an army veteran, he saw far too much of it in combat. Although deeply bothered by his past, Rook is unwilling to discuss it even with those he genuinely cares about: his girlfriend Sabrina, her father, Norment, or his friend, police detective Archie Lin. Instead, he keeps building invisible barriers separating himself from the others. Ironically, it’s not Rook’s past but his present shame that becomes a significant flaw in a community built on sharing lives and suffering. While Rook manages to resolve the case by the end, his true victory comes by overcoming his self-imposed isolation and opening up about his life.
Pitts’ seems to care intensely about her characters, making their troubles and triumphs feel surprisingly poignant. It is this humanity at the core of her novel that provides a spark of hope in a cold-hearted neighborhood of the poor, desperate and disfranchised. All too often, noir crime stories either curdle into sheer misanthropy or devolve into cheap Raymond Chandler pastiches. Warmth and compassion help to elevate this novel far above such stories.
In her poignant and hopeful noir mystery, BLACK AND BLUE IN HARLEM, Delia C. Pitts depicts her characters and their lives with insight and compassion.
~Danijel Štriga for IndierReader