Who is Nina Halligan? Imagine Mike Hammer as an African-American woman with leftie politics who was once a New York City prosecutor until she skirted certain rules regarding evidence after her family was killed by a gangster and you begin to get an idea. The heroine of three detective novels by Norman Kelley, this dynamic lady takes on the new dynamic in post-Civil Rights US society. It is a dynamic that Kelley calls the New World Plantation-where black men and women do the white-dominated system’s dirty work all in the name of money. Black America as product: selling the culture, selling the religion, selling the history-whatever it takes to make a buck, Halligan’s foes will stoop to it. In the course of events, this strategy usually results in a trail of blood.
Blood usually spilled by an apparent innocent who is somehow connected to the life of Nina Halligan. Connected to her even when she wants nothing to do with the blood or the mystery that lies in its wake.
It is the last sentence that provides the reader with the tip off for Kelley’s latest (and last, at least for a while) installment in the Nina Halligan series, A Phat Death Akashic, 2003). Finally recovered emotionally and physically from her last bout with the mercenaries of the African-American nation that was told in Black Heat, Halligan begins this adventure by telling the reader about her new husband. She makes it clear that the only adventures she wants to have are of a sensual nature and that she intends to have them with her new man-a music critic and sax player with connections in the musical worlds of jazz and hip-hop.
From the get go, however, it’s apparent that there is going to be trouble, in no small part thanks to the overly commercial world of gangsta rap. Although Nina doesn’t really “get” music, her husband Glen Sierra, who is also ten years her junior, does. Indeed, he sees himself as part of a mission to save hip-hop from the crass and pointless noise of gangsta rap-a music that Glen is available only because it is easier to sell it to white suburbanites who want to piss off their parents but don’t know any real black kids to bring home. So they bring in the modern version of the dozens instead: the meaner and dirtier, the better to scare them with. Of course, there are so-called black entrepreneurs who are only too happy to skim a buck off of the sales of this racially demeaning music no matter who that means doing business with.
In A Phat Death, the entrepreneur is none other than an old street brother of Glen’s who goes by the name of Big Poppa Insane. In order to distribute the music he is producing, he makes an alliance with a former white-skinned member of the South African security forces known for his interrogation practices, primarily the practice of brutally raping women suspected of being members of the anti-apartheid resistance. Now this man owns the world’s largest entertainment conglomerate. He is accompanied by his dark-skinned assistant who worked undercover with the same security force. It is he who is seen fleeing from the scene of the murder of another of Sierra’s old street bro’s: a hip hopper named SugarDick. Oh yeh, Sierra, Insane, SugarDick, and two others from the old days were all members of one of the first rap groups known as The Five Points. (The name represented the five points of African unity according to a nationalist religion whose leaders appear in all of the Halligan books-it is these leaders who are the overseers of the New World Plantation).
As the murders begin to pile up, the plot twists and turns, taking Halligan from an industry bash in midtown Manhattan to Paris and out to America’s southwest. Her bittersweet comments on the state of Black America pepper her conversations and intimacies, while her comments on the sexual state of her and her friends keeps the reader’s prurient interest involved. This is not tame reading. Indeed, it is about as wild as one can get without pictures and an X rating. If it were 1903, this story would seem fantastic because it couldn’t happen. In 2003, it’s fantastic because it could.
Kelley does not spare anyone or any segment of U.S. culture and politics in his books. The scenario he acerbically portrays could have easily come from today’s headlines. The speculation regarding his characters’ political and monetary motivation rarely appears in the mainstream media like the New York Times or Rolling Stone. After all, this part of Kelley’s story hits too close to these media moguls’ home. A Phat Death is about the commodification of black American music, culture, and history. Yet, it’s about more than black skin vs. white skin; it’s about global capitalism and the overriding power of obscene amounts of money that transforms every thing into product.
You don’t necessarily know this while you’re reading the novel, but Kelley’s Nina Halligan books are what college types call postcolonial literature. These fast-paced private eye stories explore the junctures where the white-dominated capitalist system hooks up with the sons and daughters of slaves and colonial subjects who are only too willing to assist that system in their own cultural (and personal) destruction. At the same time, Halligan and her female compatriots provide a glimmer of hope in their struggle for personal and cultural liberation.
RON JACOBS is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground.
He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org