The Man Who Changed Colors

Dashiell Hammett, the key writer in the twentieth-century detective novel both in print and in screen adaptations of his work, had it right. “The Butler Did It,” the answer to the mystery in a nineteenth century British novel, had the logic of the real-life crime upside down. It was the banker or the real estate developer or the police chief who did it and mostly got away with it. Hammet, a militant antifascist and sometime lecturer at New York’s lefty Jefferson School (a student in the classroom across the hall recalled to me, forty years later, that Hammett had shouted, “Follow the Money!”), he was himself blacklisted in Hollywood, although his novels could not be banned any more than audiences could be kept from watching “The Maltese Falcon.” Such is the fate of the Detective Left.

The Black Detective Novelist is another story, of course. Charles Himes, an embittered exile and embittered former Lefty, wrote Harlem novels with great verve and even more violence. Walter Mosely, a leftish Nation contributor, has been a vast success, hugely prolific, keen in describing Black urban life on both coasts, the underworld and all the erotic connections imaginable. Other Black novelists like the brilliant Ishmael Reed have dabbled in the genre. Mosely has arguably transformed it.

Here comes Bill Fletcher, Jr., a bit of a legend in his own right long before he became a published novelist. A Marxist theoretician and labor strategist, he rose to an executive level in the AFL after the “Palace Revolution” of 1995 ended the corrupt, incompetent regime dragging the labor movement downward. Bill was pulling the other way, toward revival and democratic unionism. The reawakening now taking place owes no little to him. Bill Fletcher the detective novelist as well? Why not.

His debut fiction, The Man Who Fell From the Sky, offered a fascinating angle few readers were likely to expect. In his own early employment years spent in and around the blue collar life of the Cape Cod region, he encountered the race complications of the Cape Verdean population at a critical disjunction. On hand since at least the early nineteenth century in Southern New England, heavily intermarried with Free Blacks and Native Americans of the region, Cape Verdeans could (and can still) be “Black,” “African,” “Portuguese” or something else as life, love and employment allow.

The immigration law changes in 1965 allowed tens of thousands more to emigrate to the US. This coincided with the homeland struggle against Portuguese colonizers (remembering that more Cape Verdeans live in Guinea-Bissau than on the islands), raising up Amilcar Cabral into one of the great anti-colonialist figures of midcentury—before his assassination. According to the detective plot laid out by Fletcher, the Revolution sent into exile not only persecuted rebels but persecuting loyalists of the Portuguese army, men who could be sought for torturing prisoners, but with CIA assistance, fled to new identities in the US and elsewhere.

This is Fletcher’s fiction, but it’s also novelistic realism set in 1979. Not to give away too much of the plot of The Man Who Changed Colors, the Cape Verdean journalist-turned-detective lives within a fascinating and dangerous rainbow of mixed and supposedly unmixed races. He encounters, among other white racists, immigrant Irish sympathizers of the anti-British struggle who can also be hard bitten racists within the US. They may even be unaware, more likely indifferent, to the fine points of Cape Verdean/American life. Most interestingly, they are joined in their racism by mainland Portuguese immigrants, who in 1979 or even now, are sometimes uneasy about the blurring of racial lines. After all, it is just about never, not in any culture, advantageous to be the darkest person in the room, or the darkest relative in the family.

The Man Who Changed Colors—a brilliant title for any Cape Verdean saga—is also a romance novel of a subtle quality. Our protagonist, David Gomes, a hard-hitting journalist on a weekly paper has been in a relationship with his feminist boss, a native Quebecois, member of yet one more group looked down upon in the past as somehow less than white. They are no longer romantic (his choice) and he is very much in love with a fellow commuter with whom he is able to spend less time than he wants.

Now, the murder. The shipbuilding industry, back in the 1970s-80s, looked healthier than in recent decades, but like other manufacturing, had been already struggling before the famous post-Vietnam recession sunk in. Health and safety measures had only begun to be introduced or monitored, and as often ignored. So when a welder, a less-than-white welder, is killed on the job, the company and the (white) union leader would rather attribute it to tough luck or personal error than look hard at the evidence. Fletcher just happened to work this particular job, in the same district, in the late 1970s.

Looking for the evidence and writing about it gets our protagonist in a world of trouble. But it also gets him interacting with women and men of various ages, genders (also straight or gay) jobs and colors, and here, Fletcher gives us a sociology lesson worth serious study. The novelist sees as deeply into a complex subculture, this one at least, as any political scientist or social historian. As in most any other detective novel, trouble is around any corner or every corner, but these corners, in the hard-bitten communities around Cape Cod, are anything but the genteel world of summer dwellers.

The cops are not too much help, a narrative staple of the genre. But here, at least one official understands that the situation is a microcosm of an ongoing, global struggle, colonialism versus anti-colonialism, with a decisive color component. Again, not to give away too much, David Gomes needs to solve a crime, to keep himself alive, to keep his relationship with a loving woman alive, and if that not enough, to deal with the downward shifting circumstance of the contemporary American press. Newspaper consolidation is the name of the game, decades before the Internet wipes out revenues. Facing death, he’s also caught in the middle of a potential career crisis.

This is a substantial, indeed hefty novel. Three hundred and fifty pages go by in a hurry, because the narrative moves so swiftly along. To say the story ends in 2004 is giving too much away, except that, of course, the detective of most genre novels definitely….survives.

Whoever is interested in the economic, racial and regional dynamics of the time and place will find much here. Devotees of the detective novel will have their own reasons for enjoying a good read.##

Paul Buhle is a retired historian, and co-founder, with Scott Molloy, of an oral history project on blue collar Rhode Islanders.