Author Ed Lacy (born Leonard S. Zinberg) is best known for creating the first truly-credible black private eye, Toussaint Moore, in his 1956 novel Room to Swing, for which he won the Edgar for Best Novel.
Lacy, in fact, was white, although he was married to a black woman. Along the way, he managed to write several other fine novels, mostly one-shot paperback originals, featuring hard-boiled heroes (usually detectives of some sort) such as Hal Darling, Barney Harris, Marty Bond, John O'Hara, Matt Ranzino, Lee Hayes and William Wallace.
On Sunday, January 7, 1968, crime author Ed Lacy suffered a fatal coronary in a laundromat near his 7home in north Harlem. He was 56. He left behind a wife, Esther (1910-86) and a daughter, Carla (born in the late 1950s, possibly adopted, and presumably still living). Lacy, it turned out, had had a medical history of heart trouble dating back as early as 1960.
Lacy wrote about his heart ailments as "a form of therapy," as well as "a source of story ideas." As early as 1946, in a New Yorker piece titled "The Convert," he wrote about an apartment dweller whose heart is "pretty bad." And in 1961, just a year after his first heart attack, he brought out Bugged For Murder (1961) about a private eye, Billy Wallace, with a bad ticker who becomes a couch potato.
In another novel, The Hotel Dwellers (1966), the protagonist, Howie Fisher, manages a hotel gift shop and leads the sedentary lifestyle of a recovering heart patient. But looks are deceptive. On the same novel's rear dust jacket, there's a grainy black-and-white portrait of the burly Lacy (who resembles a begrizzled Alan Arkin) glowers back at us. Anything but sedate.
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Little's known of Lacy's early life. He was born Leonard S. Zinberg on August 25, 1911 in New York City (some sources say upstate New York) to Max and Elizabeth Zinberg. The marriage ended in divorce a few years later and young "Len" went to live with his mother and her new husband, Maxwell Wyckoff, a banking lawyer, in Manhattan. the family did fairly well -- they lived on West 153rd Street, on the fringes of Harlem.
During the late 1920s, Zinberg attended the College of the City of New York. During the 1930s his wanderjahr throughout the United States included working a series of odd jobs (including a stint as a butcher and the beginnings of what would be a writing career had started to appear by the middle of the decade) to support himself. By the early 1940s, Zinberg had returned to The Big Apple to settle down. He married Esther, a black woman, and saw his first novel published. They would live in New York city for the balance of his life, and would have at least one daughter, Carla. Except for a stint in the military, which found Private First Class Zinberg serving with the Allies' in their 1943 push into Italy to kick out the Nazis, Len andhis family would reside in New York City for the rest of his life.
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Already a prolific writer by then (his New York Times obituary suggested he wrote and sold "several hundred" articles and short stories), Zinberg boasted that he had supported his family entirely through his writing ever since his discharge. Things must have been good -- the Zinbergs traveled to the West Indies and Europe (in Paris for part of 1959) and often vacationed at Long Island beaches. Intimately familiar with New York City, Zinberg often rode the subway exploring new neighborhoods for writing ideas. His apartment sat near a police precinct station where the affable, gregarious crime author maintained "buddy-buddy" contacts as well as with lawyers and coroners.
Early short stories reveal some of the author's lifelong passions. For instance, "A Four-Square Guy" from BLAST: A Magazine of Proletarian Short Stories in the October/November 1934 issue staked out his liberal views.
A fellow leftist, the poet William Carlos Williams served as an advisory editor for this New York City journal. He also published in such leading leftist publications as New Masses.
"Lynch Him!" which appeared in Francis R. Bellamy's monthly Fiction Parade (July 1935), suggests Zinberg's deep-seated concerns with racial matters and leftist politics that Alan Wald, a professor at the University of Michigan, suggests stemmed from his 1920s Jewish heritage.)
Certainly, Zinberg intertest in black culture seems to have been inspired by more than just his interracial marriage (in articles he usually referred to Esther simply as "the wife"). An Ed Lacy story titled "The Right Thing" originally appeared in the Baltimore Afro-American newspaper shortly after World War Two and was later anthologized in The Best Short Stories by Afro-American Writers, 1925-1950. The story tells the strange, sad tale of Ed Jordan who in an auto accident severs a young girl's arm. Jordan waits for the disfigured girl to grow up so he can wed and thereby redeem her. In the end, she jilts him for a younger fellow nearer her own age. Such an ironic, bittersweet ending is classic Ed Lacy.
Many of Zinberg's early publishing credits emerged in literary journals. In November 1936, he published a short story titled "A Leaner" in Story Magazine, a prestigious literary outlet to such icons as Tennessee Williams, Carson McCullers, Horace Gregory, and Richard Wright, edited by Whit Burnett and his first wife Martha Foley. The story concerns a quiet man who defeats the neighborhood bully in an odd game of horseshoes.
His early work also appeared in more prosaic venues. In Murder Off the Rack, Marv Lachman cites a seminal story titled "For His Kids" published in the October 1938 issue of Coronet (popular in its day for jazzy fiction not to mention its black-and-white nude photos). Pitting two dads in a bizarre pugilist match, the story introduces the author's love of "the Sweet Science." Lachman, a leading Ed Lacy scholar, states, "No mystery writer before or since has written more often knowledgeably about it [boxing]." In the January 1944 issue of Thrilling Sports, Zinberg published a second boxing story titled "Tiger on the Loose."
There's no doubt Zinberg was a huge fight fan and an avid reader of Ring Magazine, which he refers to often in his writing. In fact, his hefty debut novel, Walk Hard, Talk Loud (1940), is a boxing novel. It revolves around Andy Whitman, a scrappy African-American fighter turning pro. Lou Ross, a gangster promoter who runs the fight racket, is the white nemesis opposing Andy while Ruth, a gold-hearted Communist activist (based on Esther?), is the girl who saves him. The linear plot ends predictably, but the gym milieu and boxing sequences pack a raw, realistic, and visceral power even when read today.
Race relations permeate the plot, highlighted by various episodes of discrimination. The paperback a decade later from Lion Books hyped it with lurid jacket copy: ("A Negro Prizefighter -- in a SAVAGE White World!")
The novel even drew praise from Ralph Ellison in a 1940 review titled "Negro Prize Fighter" for New Masses. He credited Zinberg for "indicat[ing] how far a writer, whose approach to Negro life is uncolored by condescension, stereotyped ideas, and other faults growing out of race prejudice, is able to go with a Marxist understanding of the economic basis of Negro personality."
Zinberg's acceptance by the African-American community went beyond a glowing review by one of its predominant intellectuals. He had friends who helped him do more with his inaugural novel.
Walk Hard, Talk Loud was Zinberg's only book adapted for the stage or screen. He collaborated with veteran black playwright Abram Hill (1910-86) to produce a seven-scene play at the American Negro Theatre on 135th Street. Lewis Nichols for the New York Times said the show's "central theme is legitimate and important." A young, "attractive" Rudy Dee (four years prior to her marriage to Ossie Davis) starred as Ruth, the love interest.
The show impressed Broadway executives enough to move it downtown and cast the real-life white middleweight champion Mickey "The Toy Bulldog" Walker as Andy Whitman. As a boxing aficionado, Zinberg had to be exhilarated by the choice of Walker.
Despite this early stage triumph, however, Zinberg went on to write very little for stage or screen, big or small. Hollywood bought an old Esquire story, but it went no further. His only credit came for scripting a 1960 episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents called "Hitch Hike," starring Suzanne Pleshette.
(There's no doubt, however, that Zinberg's knowledge of the sport of boxing, as displayed in both his fiction and non-fiction, was impressive. Themes explored in his first novel about the downtrodden boxer would resonated throughout his work, including in his 1951 essay "The World of the Pug" in The American Mercury, a profile of Danny Cox who in 1943 came within a broken thumb of capturing the light heavyweight world championship. The author made a convincing case how boxers are fed into a meatgrinder by pursuing lavish titles and purses. This essay also exemplified Zinberg's crisp, clean prose and seamless journalistic style which were often overshadowed by his larger body of fiction. Two novels, Go for the Body (1954) and The Big Fix (Pyramid, 1960), also used boxing as a main theme. Interestingly, Go for the Body also put the boxer in an interracial marriage.)
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Despite themes of corruption and injustice in much of his writing about boxing, Zinberg hadn't yet made the break to mystery writing . While in the army, Private First Class Zinberg had had a story titled "Timing" published in the men's magazine, Sir! (October 1942), and his early detective story "Pay Telephone" appeared with James M. Cain had made it into the October 1943 issue of Popular Detective.
Zinberg won a Soldiers Prose competition and published a war sketch called "Home Is Where ..." in the October 25, 1943 issue of The New Republic, in which a corporal soon to ship off to war-torn Europe reveals a disenchantment for the U.S. provinces below the Mason-Dixon Line: "Nor could he explain the boredom of small Southern towns where a shot [a drink] on Saturday night was something to look forward to."
Zinberg's war sketches also appeared in Yank (its motto: "written by the men ... for men in the service") in 1945 Now Sergeant Zinberg, he wrote the scathing satire "Welcome Home" about a GI returning to his childhood home only to find a sign on the shack: "Keep out! No damn Jap rats wanted here."
The GI, of course, was a Japanese-American. A second Yank article recorded the reception in Rome on VJ-Day where "most people were merely smiling quietly."
Those war-time contributions to Yank and The New Republic paved the way for his eighteen New Yorker pieces (1945-47), which helped establish him, once and for all, as a professional writer. Plying a wry wit, weary optimism, and humane tolerance, he captured perfectly the postwar mood -- or at least that of a white, liberal-minded, jazz-loving war veteran residing in Harlem.
The New Yorker vignettes display a John O'Hara slice-of-life feel to them, only better written with deeper social sensitivity. Perhaps the most engaging of these war yarns is the "Sergeant Eddie" series.
Eddie, an ex-typewriter mechanic, is the maladjusted GI adapting to civilian life with mixed results. In "Something's Going to Happen" he confesses to his bartender, "I keep feeling something's going to happen, and I'm like a guy in the death house, waiting. See, it's like the whole world was a death house."
Eddie puts scant faith in the United States' leaders: "This peace conference scares me ... It's being run by a lot of politicians, the same kind of bastards who was always speaking up for 'G.I. Joe' when the elections come up."
Eddie, stricken with malaria in "Feud," butts heads with the VA head nurse, a regular Nurse Ratchet. It's not a stretch to see the sardonic "Eddie" as the basis for Zinberg adopting the "Ed Lacy" penname a couple years later.
Not all, however, is as grim as this in his New Yorker compositions. A personal essay like "On With the New" begins: "December 31, 1944, was the strangest New Year's Eve I've spent." Zinberg goes on to detail a risqué, funny account of a quick Italian striptease, not the tantalizing buildup which the paying GIs expected.
But zinberg knoew the future didn't lay in magazine work. Zinberg reminiscenced, "I had the usual tough going until I tried a novel" which paid better than the "few dollars" he earned off peddling stories to the pulps and articles to the slicks. While banging out his New Yorker pieces, Zinberg also managed to polish off two hardcover mainstream novels, What D'ya Know for Sure (1947) and Hold with the Hares (1948). The first of these ("A tough and tender novel of Hollywood") was written under the auspices of a 20th Century-Fox Literary Fellowship and released as a less highbrow 1949 Avon paperback entitled Strange Desires("a two-way split personality in one beautiful body").
Determined to succeed, Zinberg he a pseudonym, Steve April, and to sell more stories to such markets as Esquire and Colliers. He also wrote text for comic strips such as Ranger Comics (1946) and Fight Comics (1951).
But a far more lucrative writing was waiting in the wings: the paperback original boom, and the writer "Ed Lacy" was thus born.
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There may have been a more sinister reason behind the creation of Ed Lacy, however. Zinberg's attraction to radical politics included an interest in the Communist Party before World War Two. His 1948 novel Hold with the Hares, for instance, concerned the 1930s Leftist politics, and Zinberg had actively supported Henry Wallace's Progressive Party in the 1948 Presidential election against Truman. He had also attended social functions held by the editors of the Communist journal, Masses and Mainstream, during the early 1950s and had made more than a few left-wing friends. And just to keep it all in the family, Esther had once worked at the radical Yiddish newspaper Freiheit.
And so Len Zinberg, the political liberal, became Ed Lacy, the crime writer. The two personas were kept separate even in Lacy's dustjacket biographies. After all, this was the America of McCarthyism, of the Cold War and blacklisted writers. You couldn't be too careful..
Ed Lacy's first three mysteries The Woman Aroused (1951), Sin in Their Blood (1952), and Strip for Violence (1953) launched his paperback career. Such lurid titles ("Yes, the title made me grit my teeth, too," he declared) and the sexy cover art don't do these books much justice. Much akin to Charles Williams' "Girl" trilogy brought out by Gold Medal at about the same time, these slim Lacy novels in their racy wraps are well written and solidly plotted.
By the mid-fifties, Zinberg realized he'd established a strong (and lucrative) presence in the paperback original market. Looking to move up, in 1955, he signed with the more prestigious Harper to bring out his hardcover, The Best That Ever Did It, and enjoyed his first solid recognition. The book went into a second printing. The protagonist Barney Harris is a 248-pound auto mechanic/PI based in New York City who is hired by a cop's widow to root out police corruption and nail her husband's murderer.
The scrupulous attention paid by such a premier editor as Joan Kahn at Harper showed. This Ed Lacy title snagged plaudits from the picky James Sandoe ("exhibits a suspenseful proceeding"), Anthony Boucher ("lively, ingenious, entertaining"), and The New Yorker ("plot is probably sound enough"). Indeed, Ed Lacy had hit a groove all writers dream about in their careers.
In 1956, he published The Men from the Boys, again with Harper. "Marty Bond, cop, judge, brute, and little god" narrates as a haunted voice from the grave. Overlooking that amazing trick, this novel is a brilliant paean of the 1950s hard-boiled school. New York City's underbelly as the setting provides a gritty atmosphere. Marty is a multi-dimensional tough guy with a fondness for surf fishing and protecting his stepson Lawrence (a cop wannabe). Between drinking bouts, nursing ulcers, and bedding whores, he investigates such unlikely places as inside a meat locker. The savage street fighting climax had to stun even hardcore Spillane fans. Lacy dedicated the novel to "Carla Jump-Jump," presumably his daughter. Again, such critics as Sandoe and Boucher raved. Writer Will Oursler blurbed, "It is a vivid, hard-hitting police story -- with no punches pulled."
In 1957 Ed Lacy's Room to Swing, again from Harper, introduced the first credible African-American PI, Toussaint "Touie" Marcus Moore. MWA liked it enough to award him the 1958 Edgar for Best Novel, beating out Bill Ballinger, Marjorie Carleton, and the Australian novelist Arthur Upfield (whom Ed Lacy admired). Room to Swing's structure uses an interesting sequence of six sections including flashbacks. Touie deals with the black thing, but his investigation leading to Bingston in backward Ohio outshines his native New York City setting. Touie reflects how "it was a far cleaner world than Harlem, or a big city." Here also Ed Lacy's best figurative language ("If he had a cellophane head I couldn't have seen his little bird brain working any cleaner.") is worthy of comparison to Chandler's metaphoric gems. Lacy once met Chandler who he said had the look of a "retired bank manager."
After praising Room to Swing as having "honesty, vigor, and power," Boucher threw down the gauntlet to challenge Ed Lacy. "One regrets Mr. Lacy's habit of creating an excellent detective for one story only; Touie deserves a second case soon." The renowned critic would have to wait until 1964 with Lacy's PI sequel, Moment of Untruth. Lacy's excuse was that he found "series" characters "boring."
Lacy's capturing the 1958 Edgar marked the high point of his writing career. He published only two more hardcovers, the not-so-well-received Be Careful How You Live with Harper that same year, and the underrated The Hotel Dwellers (dedicated to his mother, Bea Wyckoff), in 1966. His productivity didn't taper off as he brought out two or three paperbacks every year under such salacious titles as Blonde Bait (1959), The Sex Castle (1963) and his last book, The Big Bust (1969).
Room to Swing's 1964 follow-up Touie Moore novel, Moment of Untruth, might have well been written to recapture the old Edgar magic, but the B-List paperback line Lancer Books, not Harper, brought it out.
Touie Moore's second saga is a breezier caper to exotic, sweltering Mexico City. Again, the race theme is given ample play with Touie wondering at one point if he was simply "an Uncle Tom doing the white folks a favor." He takes a sidetrip to Acapulco ("a playground for the international rich set") and broods over bullfighting ("the free butchering act"). Back in New York City, Touie's pregnant wife Fran unnerves him ("Glance around outside, enough ragged brats in the world."). The usual quirky ancillary characters and snappy dialogue round out the satisfying tale. In the end, Touie, like Ed Lacy, returned home to New York City.
But sales of his books cooled off as fickle reading tastes shifted from straight crime and mystery to Cold War espionage thrillers by Ian Fleming and John Le Carré(whom Ed Lacy admired).
His penultimate novel, The Napalm Bugle (1968) marked his energetic foray into this subgenre. Brad Armstrong, a war hero who edits an anti-war newspaper called "The Napalm Bugle," is sucked into a suspenseful plot where the H-bomb is some sort of toy."
Always a versatile, confident writer, Ed Lacy tried other forms. Sleep in Thunder (1964) was a young adult title about prejudices faced by Puerto Ricans.
He also continued to write short stories. One story from a 1974 anthology titled "A Singular Quarry" is borderline science fiction, involving UFOs and "red nightmare" spaceships. Along with such writers as Bill Pronzini and Dennis Lynds, Lacy contributed stories to Girl from U.N.C.L.E. Magazine and Man from U.N.C.L.E. Magazine (in 1966-67 writing again as Steve April), both projects tie-ins with the popular TV series. His stories appeared in most of the major short fiction markets of his day (AHMM, EQMM, Manhunt, Mike Shayne, Argosy, Esquire, The Saint) with perhaps the notable exception of Playboy. He did contribute fiction to the other "breast mags," however, including at least one collaboration with a friend.
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In his career, Len Zinberg published 28 novels with an estimate at his death of 28 million copies, printed in at least twelve translations including Dutch, Yugoslavian, Japanese, Italian, Russian, and German. His canon also includes dozens of short stories. Lacy's literate, plausible, and often inventive use of African-American and minority characters set him apart from the pack of contemporary crime writers. Certainly, his 1958 Edgar represents the apex of his popular and critical success.
He was never a "big money writer," but he made a respectable living at it. His hurried output at times displays a somewhat uneven quality. Nonetheless, his Harper imprint hardcovers are ambitious, articulate, and original enough to arguably veer into the literary arena. After all, he had cut his teeth in The New Yorker and The New Republic. And he refused to draw distinctions between genres.
"Frankly, I don't consider the mystery novel on any higher or lower literary level than any other commercial novel," he once declared. He went on to lump Faulkner and Hemingway in with Spillane and Faith Baldwin as all "commercial" novelists.
Sadly, none of his books show up in the public library online catalog of his native New York City, but Ed Lacy still has his avid fans and admirers.
Edgar-winning critic Marv Lachman describes Lacy as "one of the most interesting writers of the paperback originals."
Famed New York Times critic Anthony Boucher consistently praised the Lacy projects. Welsh critic and writer John Williams also admired Room to Swing as "a fine, taut piece of crime writing." Jon L. Breen selected the same title as one of the twenty-five best PI novels ever.
Matthew J. Bruccoli sought to reprint Lacy's fiction for the New Black Mask series and cited The Best That Ever Did It as possibly his favorite read. Alan Wald ventures an opinion that such Lacy books as In Black and Whitey or Room to Swing might well inspire Ph.D. dissertations.
There's no doubt Ed Lacy was a gifted storyteller. He fought the good fight and above all, he trusted his "common sense" to create the realistic novel with "characterization as important as plot." When given the necessary time, he did it quite well.
We'll leave the last word to Ed Gorman. He says that "Room To Swing remains high on my list of hardboiled mystery novels. There was a lyricism, almost a poetry, to the writing that touched not only the powerful, melancholy storyline but also the elegant and evocative place descriptions. I've always regarded this as a true masterpiece. Certainly, its take on race makes it a milestone, too. But the sociology of it too often overshadows the sad truth of the tale itself. I liked several other Lacy novels very much, too, but Room to Swing is the one that got him into heaven."
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