Only the Wicked

onlythewickedBlack Gat Books is Stark House Press’s reissue series of notable crime fiction in mass paperback format. Among its initial titles is ONLY THE WICKED, the fourth novel of Gary Phillip’s series featuring black, contemporary Los Angeles-based private investigator Ivan Monk. It’s a wonderful opportunity to discover both this impressively talented but too often neglected crime author, well as this excellent but short-lived series.
 
Old man Marshall Spears was, along with Ivan Monk, one of the regulars you’d find hanging out at the Abyssinia Barber Shop & Shine Parlor in Los Angeles almost every day. No one paid much attention to Old Man Spears, so when he drops dead one afternoon it comes as a surprise to everyone to learn that Spears played in the Negro Baseball League – along with Monk’s cousin Kennesaw Riles. But nobody in Monk’s family mentions Riles, due to his questionable testimony that put civil rights leader Damon Creel in jail for murder back in the 1960s.

Not long after, Old Man Spears is buried Kennesaw Riles is found dead. Monk is certain that Riles’s death is more than coincidence, suspects murder, and begins making inquiries around town. But when Monk’s elderly mother is attacked, the investigation becomes personal.
 
The search for the truth behind Riles’s death takes Monk all over his familiar neighborhood and as far away as Mississippi where he tracks down the surviving Damon Creel and those involved in his trial and sentencing. All the while a hunting song by influential Delta bluesman Charlie Patton, “Killin’ Blues,” follows Monk during his investigation. The song was on Kennesaw Riles’s mind shortly before he died, and has been sought after by record collectors for years as a “lost recording” by Patton. Could it also provide some insight into how Riles died?
 
Phillips prose style, as with the earlier Monk novels, is lively, direct, but never forced. The dialogue, where much of the plot information comes from, flows naturally with a credible ring of authenticity.
 
Like Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins, Monk is both personally and professionally involved with his neighborhood and the larger black community of Los Angeles. And, again like the Mosley series, many of the events that form the cases Monk investigates come from current events happening around him. This fourth novel, however, allows Monk to explore the Civil Rights Movement several years prior, along with both the positive and lingering negative results of the various organized protests and demonstrations that marked the era. This is especially evident in the chapters where Monk travels to Tennessee and Mississippi and encounters Creel and the wealthy, elderly Dixiecrats who refuse to give up the power and influence that has been family traditions throughout the troubled history of the American South.
 
By comparison, the incorporation of bluesman Charlie Patton and the long-rumored lost recording are the only elements that do not holistically fit within the story. We never fully understand why the Patton song seems so important to Riles’s death; other than perhaps Riles’ and Monk’s devotion to blues music. Still, the sections where Monk visits the Blues Museum in Memphis and learns more about Patton’s troubled life and how it influenced his music – and generations of music that followed – are extremely well written and fascinating to read.
 
As added bonuses, this new edition includes a bibliography of Philips’s work along with a new introduction where Phillips recalls the inspirations of the novel. Phillips also notes that this Black Gat Books edition is the first paperback edition of the novel since its initial publication 15 years earlier.
 
ONLY THE WICKED was the final novel of the series. A few years later Phillips collected his Monk short stories (published as MONKOLOGY in 2004) and moved on to various other long and short form works.
 
Phillips’s books tend to disappear from print shortly after publication, and the earlier titles in the Ivan Monk series are difficult to trace. So this new edition is cause for celebration.
 
Highly recommended, and an excellent opportunity to discover this highly appealing, creative and wildly talented crime author who has deserved a wider audience for too long a time. —Alan Cranis

Get it at Amazon.

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