This is a guest post by Hannah Freece, a writer-editor in the Library’s Publishing Office.
“I broke par in Bingston.”
With this enigmatic statement, private eye Toussaint Moore opens “Room to Swing,” Ed Lacy’s Edgar Award–winning 1957 novel, the newest addition to the Library of Congress Crime Classics series.
It’s the hard-hitting story of a Black detective battling racism, a murder frame-up and the mysteries of an early reality television series about unsolved crimes. It’s a compelling story, popular when it was released in midcentury America, and the most influential of Lacy’s prolific career.
The narrative wastes no time. After that one-sentence opener, Moore continues, “It took me less than a minute to learn all I wanted to know—that I’d made a mistake by coming here.”
Here’s the set-up: A private detective in Harlem, “Touie” Moore is hired by the producers of a true crime reality television show to tail a suspect. When Moore finds his quarry dead—and himself framed for the crime—he must travel to the suspect’s hometown in fictional Bingston, Ohio, to solve the case. He encounters hostility and suspicion from the town’s white residents who balk at cooperating with a Black detective. To clear his name, Moore returns to New York to trap the murderer and confront his accusers.
Lacy was the pen name for Leonard S. Zinberg, a New Yorker who knocked out more than two dozen tough-guy crime novels published as paperback originals (“Go for the Body,” “Shakedown for Murder,” “Sin in Their Blood”) and more than one hundred short stories in a career that spanned nearly three decades. He was Jewish, married to a Black woman, a communist for many years, and an early and ardent advocate of civil rights for Black Americans. (Ralph Ellison, who moved in many of the same New York literary and social circles, reviewed Zinberg’s first book in 1940 in New Masses, a Marxist magazine.) When Zinberg died in Harlem of a heart attack in 1968 at age 56, the New York Times reported his inexpensive books, part of the midcentury love affair with pulp fiction, had sold more than 28 million copies.
He wrote “Swing” in mid-career, earning a footnote as the first white writer to place a Black detective at the center of a noir mystery. Published in 1957, it won the Edgar Award the following year for the best mystery novel.
As Crime Classics series editor Leslie S. Klinger describes in his introduction, the noir genre features “cynical, morally ambiguous protagonists [who] often found themselves caught in a whirlpool of events, slowly sucked into disaster.” Lacy created a tense drama in which Moore fights unseen forces—not only the true killer, but the racism that pervades American society.
While Lacy was not writing from lived experience, he made an earnest effort to capture the unique struggles of a Black man in the 1950s. Moore’s simultaneous skepticism and determination to exonerate himself place him firmly in the hard-boiled tradition.
Lacy was also innovative in setting “Swing” in the context of a reality television show called “You—Detective!” The producer who hires Moore describes the show as follows: “We rehash some unknown but factual crimes, and offer a reward if any viewer can nab the criminal. It’s been done before; you’ve probably seen similar shows.”
Modern audiences surely have, but in 1957, the format was still novel. The concept of a true crime program with audience participation had its roots in radio. The “Gang Busters” radio show debuted in 1935 featuring dramatized plots pulled from the headlines. Actors portrayed key figures in each case, including heroic law enforcement officers, all accompanied by thrilling sound effects: sirens, whistles, gunfire, and fisticuffs. The show was wildly popular, ran for two decades, coined the phrase “coming on like gang busters” and sought to valorize the police while teaching audiences that “crime does not pay.”
The show, the creation of veteran radio star Phillips H. Lord, also featured descriptions of real fugitives gleaned from local police departments and the FBI. Listeners were encouraged to contact law enforcement with any information, just as viewers are in the fictional “You—Detective!”
The success of “Gang Busters” led to its television adaptation in 1952. Other TV programs soon followed, though it would be decades before the genre’s longest-running shows, “America’s Most Wanted” and “Cops,” premiered in 1988 and 1989, respectively. The popularity of true crime in new formats like the podcast “Serial,” which debuted in 2014, shows Americans’ enduring enthusiasm for the genre. (“Gang Busters” was added to the National Recording Registry in 2008.)
With its republication of “Room to Swing,” the Library celebrates another under-recognized masterpiece, the 12th in the Crime Classics series. Launched in 2020, the series features some of the finest – if faded from popular memory – American crime writing from the 1860s to the 1960s. The list includes “The Conjure-Man Dies,” “That Affair Next Door,” and “Last Seen Wearing.” Drawn from the Library’s collections, each volume includes the original text, an introduction, author biography, notes, recommendations for further reading and suggested discussion questions from mystery expert Klinger.
Crime Classics are published by Poisoned Pen Press, an imprint of Sourcebooks, in association with the Library of Congress. “Room to Swing,” published on October 4, is available in softcover ($14.99) from booksellers worldwide, including the Library of Congress shop.
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I discovered the LC Crime Classics at the 2022 ALA Conference at the LC Booths. Thank you for the free copy of “Average Jones!” It made the perfect travel book though several airports. The short stories were easy to pick up and put down as travel progressed.
On to more Crime Classics!