Book review: The Men from the Boys by Ed Lacy
The Men from the Boys, first published by Harper in 1956, is a tough and fast-paced crime novel by Ed Lacy, the pseudonym of Edgar Award-winning American novelist Len Zinberg who died in 1968.
Much of Lacy’s work, largely suspense and mystery fiction, dealt with racial discrimination, and he is noted for his four influential novels featuring African American heroes, private eye Toussaint ‘Touie’ Marcus Moore and police detective Lee Hayes.
Often favourably reviewed in publications like The New Yorker, Library Journal and The New York Times, his books sold 28 million copies and were printed in 12 countries.
In The Men from the Boys, an entertaining standalone mystery, the main protagonist, Marty Bond, is a cynical, roughneck anti-hero with a violent streak and a disreputable past. Once a respected New York City cop who was forced to retire to avoid a scandal, he now works as a detective at a ‘fleabag’ hotel.
In fact, he has a ‘sweet deal’ going – in addition to his police pension and ‘the pocket money the hotel insisted was a salary,’ he pulls in over two hundred tax-free dollars a week through his ‘various side rackets,’ some of which entail extracting money from disorderly hotel guests through violence, and acting as pimp to ten working girls.
His objectives change when his doctor tells him he has a tumour in his gut and refers him to a specialist. Convinced he has terminal cancer, Marty becomes suicidal and even more reckless, as well as downright fearless.
Then his stepson, Lawrence, an auxiliary police volunteer who is preparing to take the police exam, seeks his advice, inadvertently drawing Marty into a puzzling and highly dangerous case.
While on patrol duty, Lawrence found a local butcher trussed up and raving that he had been ‘robbed of fifty thousand dollars by two teenage kids,’ but then quickly retracted his theft claim. Lawrence later read that ‘two young hoodlums from the West Side were shot to death in a gas-station hold-up’ and believes there is a connection.
Ignoring the advice of his sergeant, lieutenant and Marty to mind his own business, Lawrence investigates the butcher further and is beaten so badly that he winds up in hospital.
Marty’s ex-wife Dot, ‘appealing to the mean streak’ in him, manages to persuade Marty to use his strength, cruelty and toughness for good for a change by going after the culprits and getting ‘revenge.’
And so Marty picks up the investigation where Lawrence left off and, using his police connections and his detective instincts, he gradually begins to unravel the mystery and uncover a much greater crime.
Frank, provocative and untamed, Marty Bond is an impressively colourful, distinctive character whose presence makes this competent mystery novel infinitely more enjoyable. He’s bigoted and morally deficient, and when he doesn’t wound with his tongue, he lets his powerful fists do the talking.
Lacy expertly manages to bring a sympathetic aspect to the mean, hard-edged Marty, and for all his crude, derogative talk, the reader can’t help but root for him and want to find out how the story ends.
(Stark House Press, paperback, £7.65)