The Underbelly by Gary Phillips (2010)
LA author Gary Phillips writes engaging and thought provoking sci-fi and crime fiction in different forms; long and short stories, graphic novels and comics. He also likes to experiment with storytelling forms and often edits and collaborates on anthologies. He’s a born storyteller and his writing comes from the heart. He’s a voice for those who rarely get a platform and so is always socially aware, political and relevant.
Phillips’s crime writing is radical but also part of a long tradition. The Underbelly is imbued with the spirit of hardboiled, (more Hammett than Chandler). Phillips also cites the writing of Richard Wright and Rod Serling as key influences but he has his own distinctive voice. He has written several crime novels with a political edge, The Underbelly is my favourite, it’s a fine modern crime novel by any measure.
The Underbelly grips from the opening scene through the satisfyingly dark denouement. Page one puts the reader in the middle of a knife fight, these are mean unforgiving streets but the most dangerous criminals in this novel don’t live in this part of town. One of the things I like most about this novel is that it’s not going where you might think from the early action and the initial set up. The Underbelly is about the collision of two worlds; the marginalised versus the rich and powerful – this is about the gentrification of Los Angeles that squeezes the existing community out, neither the money men or the authorities care where they go. Is this progress? I guess your opinion might depend on whether you’re rich and looking to make a $ or whether it’s your home about to be taken from you as part of a new colonization.
The Underbelly is a tight noir, action packed and full of black humour.
It all starts with Wall Street – no, not that one, this one is in central Los Angeles:
“Unlike the street’s more notorious incarnation in Manhattan, the West Coast version didn’t boast of edifices and testament to giddy capitalism. The bailout around here was of the cheap whiskey and crack rock variety, the meltdown a daily occurrence.”
Savoirfaire is a young and cocky gangster, the guy who’s comes looking for him is Magrady, a Vietnam vet, long in the tooth and wily. It doesn’t occur to the young man that weather beaten Magrady can back up what he’s saying if he needs to. Magrady tells Savoirfaire to take Floyd Chambers off his loan book, no more leans on the disabled man’s social security cheques. Savoirfaire thinks Magrady is muscling in on his loan sharking business, he can’t comprehend the idea of looking out for a neighbour. He fetches a knife from his car and comes at Magrady. Magrady kicks his ass before slashing one of the tyres on savoirfaire’s shiny Escalade. He’s been warned.
Janis Bonilla, community adviser for Urban Advocacy, is planning a demonstration at City Hall over the Emerald Shoals redevelopment plan, she’s been trying to get Magrady to come on board as an organiser. Like a lot of vets, Magrady is often homeless, though he has a bed in a garage at the moment.
A couple of days later Magrady is picked up. LAPD Captain Loren Stover fancies him for the murder of Jeff Currey aka Savoirfaire. Someone smashed his skull in with a heavy duty pry bar in Ladera Heights. Stover and Magrady have history from Vietnam and the cop is holding a grudge, at the moment there isn’t enough evidence for the charge to stick so Magrady is released.
Chambers, has gone missing in the meantime. It’s unlikely a man in a wheel chair did Savoirfaire in but Magrady wants to be sure. He searches Chambers place and finds a connection to SubbaKhan, the company that did the environmental impact report on the Emerald Shoals Scheme.
The only way Magrady can get clear of Savoirfaire’s murder is to find Chambers, the connection to Emerald Shoals and who killed Savoirfaire. My everyone wants him asking questions and Captain Stover has just made him homeless. It’s about to kick off.
The Underbelly deals with the plight of vets, and the community being bulldozed by the developers with the connivance of the police. This novel will make readers angry at the way people are treated but while it sympathises with the dispossessed it’s not a book that feels sorry for it’s characters, there’s a lot of dignity and spirit in this community. There is a great deal of humour here too, the scene where Magrady tucks up in a ball and gets the sympathy of the crowd when he is attacked by a thug will make you laugh. It’s entertaining but hard edged – no bullshit!
There are some illustrative woodcuts and photos to accompany the text and an extensive interview with the author, which is a nice bonus. Phillips says:
“If I want a polemic I’ll read non-fiction….if you’re going to tell a story, it should have characters that resonate with the reader and have a plot and structure that is not just an excuse to go on forever.”
This story has characters that resonate. Mulgrew Magrady is a wickedly good hero, a vet who stands up for what he thinks is right, a black man screwed by the system who still has his dignity and smarts. He won’t go down without a fight.
‘But sometimes the bad guy wins. What kind of morality is that?’ [interviewer]
‘Maybe that’s the hard truth, the real truth that life teaches us. When there are ambiguous endings or the bad guy wins.’
The Underbelly is an attack on rampant capitalism and a damn fine thriller. Ticks all the boxes.
9781604862065 pbk PM Press