Face of My Assassin by Jan Huckins & Carolyn Weston.
At sixty-one years distance it’s hard not to read this novel for the remarkable social document it is, for what it says about segregation in the 1950s. The issues Face of My Assassin raises are sometimes brutal and obvious but there’s a lot of subtly here too. As integration is coming to the fore this novel explores prejudice in all its forms; institutional, paternalistic, unconscious, also the possibility of change and the way people see their own racism. Segregation isn’t the only focus of the novel, Face of My Assassin says much about the mores of society, the post WWII world, the gulf in attitudes between the North and the South, the city and the backwater. It’s about the tensions between black and white populations and the way people live, rich and poor, privilege and disenfranchisement. The stark divide between those seen as poor white ‘trash’ and the general black population, still worse off, yet these people have more in common than they know if only they realise that. Monagee City seethes with white corruption and self interest, the abuse of power from the court room to the cops. There’s a pyramid of power and influence that the black population don’t even register on.
Face of My Assassin is a melodrama, an epic tale of murder, rape, betrayal, loss, brutality, hypocrisy, fraud, sexism, and court room drama but also family, love, the human spirit – hope and justice. The story is seen from multiple perspectives, black and white characters, it’s nuanced and insightful. It’s tempting to think of some of the characters as clichéd, tropes, honestly, I think that’s familiarity rather than cheap writing, the sheriff is a lazy, racist cop with a self belief that belies his talents. The ‘big daddy’ character is like Endicott in The Heat of the Night but surely that is the way it was? I might be tempted to think this was just easy characterisation if it weren’t for the many subtleties. No one has a damascene conversion but some racists come to see certain things aren’t right. White liberals are faced with their own prejudices and internal struggles, unconscious bias. If Face of My Assassin has one fault, it’s overlong but nonetheless it’s a powerful piece of writing. It’s hard to imagine this novel didn’t land like a grenade when it was originally published by Random House in the US in 1959. That’s a year before To Kill a Mockingbird came out, it may not have had the impact but it doesn’t deserve to be forgotten, no one who reads this novel will ever do that.
4pm at the Cotton Queen Hotel and it’s 104° in Matthew ‘Matt’ Scott’s room. The heat, like everything else in Monagee City, population 3,400, is oppressive, the rain won’t come for months. Since he got here no one wants to talk about segregation, especially not to a journalist from Now magazine, out of New York. Matt looks out the window at the war memorial – Civil War not WWII. White folks say ‘no one wants integration’, they feel free to offer the same opinion for the black population; ‘[they]…know when they’re well off’. Black people are nervous of been seen with the journalist, those who offer an opinion just say, ‘it’s the way it is’. Nobody appears to care about the Supreme Court, this is the deep South, they have their own ways. Scott is thinking of packing it in, this is a hopeless assignment. Then he gets a call, don’t say anything, the switchboard will be listening, I’m an old friend, I’ll call round about five.
A few days earlier: Howard Patterson says this is Matt’s third and final chance, never mind his wife died and that he’s a recovering ‘lush’. Patterson praises his Africa stuff, the Mau Mau rebellion, of course, it was spiked but it was insightful. That’s what this story needs; heart, a sense of justice, ask the people of the South about integration, get both community attitudes. So Matt is here, talking to the porter at Monagee City train station:
‘I was bawn heah, gonna die heah, likin doan have nothin to do with it.’
At the hotel he makes a friend of the bellboy, Bones, calls him by his give name, Tom Winters. Tom has a sister, Ellie, she’s a teacher, she might be willing to talk. About 5.30 Ellie waltzes into Matt’s room, best not to knock, not to draw attention. Ellie is not what he’s expecting, she’s light skinned, spent three years at Columbia, passed as white in New York, but lived the whole time in fear. The novel is already beginning to challenge Matt’s perceptions of race. Ellie is angry, tired, frightened, bitter, she’s risking her life being here and she won’t trust another do goer lightly.
Hours later Tom let’s his sister out the back of the hotel, he’s suspicious of the time she spent with the white guy, even though he likes him, Ellie soothes him. In the lane outside Ellie runs into Sheriff Landreau, when he realises who she is, a ‘good girl’, he offers/insists on walking her home. Landreau is predatory, paternalistic, superior. Ellie doesn’t want to trapped the way Ludie was, abused by big daddy Ballou before being given to the sheriff. This time she manages to slip away unharmed.
Matt doesn’t want to take sides, a journalist should be impartial, he visits Ellie’s school, a shack with no facilities, no books, let alone running track, swimming pool like the white schools. She’s angry he doesn’t seem shocked, outraged. Ellie begins to tell Matt what life is like for the black population, protest against being kept off the electoral role would bring reprisals; castration, rape, foreclosure. Slowly a bond is forming.
Kit Ballou is young and spoiled, the daughter of the richest man in town. Big daddy Ballou won’t see the journalist, a Yankee trouble maker, but Kit questions her father’s paternalism, maybe it is time for a change. Like the sheriff’s this is a dysfunctional family. Kit and Matt also form a bond.
Resentment in the town builds and the atmosphere of the novel darkens, rape and murder, arson and a cruel mockery of the law ensue.
‘“But in ain’t right,” Allie went on recklessly, “stickin a murder rap on a man cause he don’t talk like you or think like you or he’s got a funny name—” like Chadash or Horowitz or Blumberg.’
The inequality in the treatment of a black man or a white man show up even when a man is being framed for murder. The slow pace of life, the local dialect and Southern style are all well observed. This novel is loaded with injustice, passion, and pathos. Given that we still have major problems with racism and division in society this novel is as timely as ever.
‘About the authors’ tells us that: “The collaborators met by chance at the beach, and the next week found themselves at work on Face of My Assassin.” Serendipity in all its glory. Jan Huckins wrote this novel and a couple of PI stories, as well as radio plays and journalism. Carolyn Weston wrote five other novels, including three police procedurals which became The Streets of San Francisco.
Cutting Edge Books, ISBN 9781734429510, published 25/3.
Face of My Assassin by Jan Huckins & Carolyn Weston.