Private Investigator Smokey Dalton works for Memphis, Tennessee's black community. He has almost no interaction with the white hierarchy, even though they exist only blocks away. So he's surprised the day a white woman walks into his Beale Street office. Laura Hathaway has sought him out because he's a beneficiary in her mother's will, and Laura wants to know why. So does Smokey. He's never heard of the Hathaways, but his search will take him on a journey that will change everything he's ever known.
Set against the backdrop of the strike and protests that will end with Dr. Martin Luther King's assassination, A Dangerous Road combines the politics of race, betrayal, unexpected love, and the terrible cost of trust into a story so memorable the Mystery Writers of America chose it as one of the top five novels of the year and the Historical Mystery Appreciation Society honored it as the winner of the Herodotus Award for Best Historical Mystery.
Full disclosure: I'm Kris Nelscott. In the introduction to this bundle, I promised you high quality work and believe me, I wouldn't say that about something of mine without some outside confirmation. The Smokey Dalton mystery series has received a large number of award nominations, including the prestigious Edgar Award (mystery's highest honor) and the Shamus Award (for best private eye novel). A Dangerous Road made the New York Public Library's recommended lists and several top ten lists when the novel first appeared. And, like so many others here, A Dangerous Road marks the beginning of the series, a series I love writing, seven books down the road. – Kristine Kathryn Rusch
"More than just offering a puzzle, this novel encourages self-examination about identity, responsibility and the consequences of choices. Smokey proves himself a man of conscience able to make tough choices."– Publisher’s Weekly
"Nelscott's series setting, in the turbulent late '60s, gives her books layers of issues of racism, class, and war, all of which still seem to remain sadly timely today."– Oregonian
"It's not hard to draw parallels between Nelscott's PI Smokey Dalton and Walter Mosley's Easy Rawlins, another secretive, canny black man trying to solve mysteries while circumspectly navigating the white world. But Dalton's no knock-off. (Would you label the hundreds of hard-boiled detectives who've appeared in Raymond Chandler's wake mere Marlow Xeroxes because they're white?)"– Entertainment Weekly
THE RIOTING IS FINALLY OVER, and the fires have burned out. Washington, D.C., is a blackened ruin, and so are the west and south sides of Chicago. Pittsburgh, Newark, Hartford, and Trenton have all suffered serious damage. So have many other major cities.
Jimmy and I drive the green Oldsmobile that belonged to Henry's church and listen to the news. We hardly speak to each other any more. There isn't much to say. Martin Luther King, Jr., is dead, assassinated in our home town, in our neighborhood, and both Jimmy and I played small roles in his death. Inadvertent roles, of course, but roles nonetheless.
We drive through fallow cornfields, the ground muddy with spring thaw. Some of the areas smell of manure as the farmers prepare for spring planting. I keep the windows of the Oldsmobile down despite the chill. I need to do something to stay awake. I have been driving for two weeks straight, and I am getting tired. Soon we'll have to find a place to stay—Jimmy needs stability, as all ten-year-olds do—but I haven't found any place that I feel safe in. The nearby cities are ruined—the black neighborhoods destroyed—and the two of us wouldn't fit into small-town America, at least not here, where we are driving, in the center of the Midwest.
Jimmy doesn't know it, but I have backtracked several times, afraid to cross the Mississippi. I know little of the Western United States and what I do know, I don't like. So every night, after we find a roadside motel (I've been following the old gospel route, stopping in places that I know will accept us), I stay awake and pore over maps, hoping to find a home.
I despair of ever finding one.
I know I'll have to choose some place soon. The money is running out. I need to make some decisions for both of us, decisions that will determine our future.
But my mind doesn't focus on the future. Instead, it latches onto the past. The last two months are so fresh that I dream of them. With the clarity of hindsight, I can see the warning signs, the ones we missed—the ones all of us missed, from Martin's lieutenants to the Committee on the Move for Equality, which we called COME, to the Memphis Minister's Association.
I'm the one who failed the most. I'm the one trained to see patterns, who made his living putting pieces together, and I knew that something was going to happen. I simply hadn't expect that something to be Martin's death.
I tell myself, as I clutch the big heavy steering wheel and sit upright in the Oldsmobile's soft plastic seats, that I couldn't have seen it. The case I was working on was personal and absorbing; it took all of my attention. But that lie is breaking down under two weeks of strain.
Is that my fault? I don't know. I wasn't in Martin's inner circle. I wasn't in anyone's inner circle, although I probably could have been. But joining wasn't—isn't—my nature. It hasn't been since I was Jimmy's age, back in the days when Martin and I were friends, when I called him M.L. just like everyone else did, when he was nothing more than a little boy with powerful eyes and an even more powerful father. Those days ended in a single night for me, the longest night of my entire life: December 16, 1939.
But all the seeds for everything that followed were sown two days earlier. That night, I used to believe, inspired Martin to his life's work—and perhaps it also influenced mine. That night, the Old South and the New met face-to-face in a way that they wouldn't do again for nearly twenty-nine years. They would meet again on April 4, 1968—a little over two weeks ago. Then the New South faced the Old and lost, as an assassin's bullet tore into Martin's throat—the home of his golden voice.
The night of December 14, 1939, wasn't as dramatic, at least for most of America. But in Atlanta, it was the biggest single event of the twentieth century. That night, Atlanta began two days of parties to celebrate the premiere of the movie, Gone With the Wind.
And Martin and I were there.
* * *
The festivities actually began the evening before, as Hollywood's biggest stars rode through the cobblestoned streets of Atlanta. I had snuck out of the house—my father didn't cotton to all the hoopla surrounding Gone With the Wind, which he (rightly, as it turns out) saw as perpetuating the white myths of the Old South. In the middle of the afternoon, I secured a spot on the corner of Peachtree and Ellis.
It was December and cold, but people began lining up as early as noon for a parade that wouldn't start until four. I wasn't the only black on that corner. Right beside me were the daughters of the Grand—John Wesley Dobbs, the unofficial black mayor of Atlanta. He too would have been angry if he had known his daughters were there. I had heard him say only the day before that the book Gone With the Wind was not a great literary piece and it wouldn't last long. The Grand was right about many things in his life, but not that.
In those days, Atlanta was a small provincial city, with a population of perhaps 300,000. There had to be that many people in the streets that afternoon, many of whom had driven in from rural areas of Georgia. Strangely, the crowd didn't shove or push. We stood, talking softly among ourselves as we waited, hoping to catch a glimpse of the stars we had watched on the big screen.
I didn't care so much about the movie, but I wanted to see Carole Lombard, who I thought was the prettiest woman I'd ever seen—a sentiment I'd once expressed to my aunt when she was visiting. She slapped me. Hard. Little black boys like me didn't ogle rich white women like Carole Lombard, not even on the big screen. I learned that lesson early, and I learned it well.
But that didn't stop me from standing on Peachtree Street, right in the center of the route from Candler Field, where the stars had landed that afternoon, to the Georgian Terrace Hotel, where they would stay for the next three nights. The street was all lit up, and ahead were klieg lights, brought in special for the premiere. Banners and balloons hung from every balcony, and most of buildings displayed the Confederate flag.
It was not my celebration, and yet I cheered with the rest as the first of thirty convertibles appeared, flanked by police motorcycles. Confetti fell like snow and somewhere a band was playing "Dixie." I held up my hand and waved, until I realized that seated in that car were people I didn't know. Behind them was a car filled with Daughters of the Confederacy, in period costume. My hand went down, and so did the hands around me. We waited until the stars started showing up: Laurence Olivier (Vivien Leigh's husband) and Olivia de Havilland in a convertible with feathered banners on the windshield; Evelyn Keyes in another; and Vivien Leigh herself riding with the David O. Selznick and Governor Eurith D. Rivers.
Around me the cheers and whistles and hollers grew. I screamed with everyone else, standing on my frozen toes so that I could see the Gables as they passed. And they finally did, in a car with Mayor William Hartsfield. Clark Gable was closest to me, wearing a cloth coat, his hair slicked down, his head bare despite the cold. He waved his hat and grinned as if he were really enjoying himself. The men flanked Carole Lombard, and all I saw of her was a fleeting, rather nervous grin, a leather-clad hand making a small, almost hesitant wave, and the flash of her famous platinum blonde hair.
And then they were gone. Beside me, Geekie Dobbs complained that the cars were going too fast; she hadn't been able to see. Her sister June shushed her as a male voice beside me asked them what had they expected—the stars to get out and walk? We watched the rest of the parade—young men wearing their grandfather's Confederate uniforms, more cars carrying more luminaries, most of whom I didn't recognize—and then we waited as the crowd dispersed.
I don't remember what I told my father when I came in the house, confetti on my coat and in my hair. He must have known where I had been and what I had done, but he said nothing. Later he did deliver a lecture at dinner about black history—one of his favorite topics—and the lecture centered on the portrait of Abraham Lincoln my parents kept in the dining room.
At the time, I wondered if M.L. got the same lecture. Looking back on it, I doubt that he did.
* * *
I saw M.L. the next night as we gathered in the basement of the Ebenezer Baptist Church. The sixty voice choir, under the leadership of M.L.'s father, Martin Luther King, Sr., known even then as Daddy King, had agreed to perform at the most prestigious event of the premiere: the ball held by Atlanta's Junior League.
The Junior League was the center of white Atlanta society. Run by southern matrons so staunchly conservative that they often didn't admit wealthy members of their own community, the Junior League sponsored many of the "important" social events, including the debutante ball. A girl who did not debut properly in white society was never admitted into the Junior League and, ironically, one of those girls whose debuts failed to impress the league nearly 20 years before was Margaret Mitchell, the author of Gone With the Wind. Because she had been so badly and consistently snubbed by the League, Mitchell didn't attend the Junior League ball on Friday night—snubbing them in return—but the rest of Atlanta did, including several hundred blacks.
Only we didn't go as invited guests. Some of us were hired as chauffeurs to take whites in period carriages to the Atlanta Municipal Auditorium, where the ball was being held. Others served as ushers, and the rest of us performed.
The Ebenezer Baptist Church Choir had been assigned its costumes, and we put them on in the chilly basement of the church. The women wore patched dresses with aprons and Aunt Jemima kerchiefs over their hair. The men wore torn pants too short for their legs, and shirts with the sleeves rolled up to reveal powerful arms. M.L. and I wore miniature versions of the men's clothes, with one addition: straw hats that were coming apart on top. The adults were dressed as slaves; we were dressed as pickaninnies.
When we arrived at the Atlanta Municipal Auditorium, Daddy King made us take off our shoes and leave them by the back door. We spent the rest of the night barefoot, because he wanted to make sure our costumes were authentic.
* * *
Five thousand rich white people attended that event—the cream of Atlanta Society. When we went out on stage, there were tables on the floor. The head of Atlanta businesses sat in those tables—and would later move to the balcony, among them the famous golfer Bobby Jones, former mayor Robert F. Maddox, and former judge Shepard Bryant, along with their families. Slightly behind them were well-known northerners: William Paley of CBS, Harold Vanderbilt, and Laurance Rockefeller. I learned who all of these people were much later.
I was more concerned with the stage. It had looked like a reproduction of a Greek Revival plantation home, with four eighteen-foot Ionic columns. My stomach fluttered at that; I knew that standing in front of it, the Ebenezer Church Baptist Choir would look even more like the slaves we were dressed as.
Surprisingly none of the adults balked at performing. M.L. made a soft sound of protest in his throat when he saw it, and I thought of my father and knew I could never tell him of the humiliation I had volunteered for.
What made things worse were all the people in Confederate and Old South attire. Women wore their grandmother's hoop skirts; men their grandfather's gray uniforms. The surviving members of Atlanta's Confederate battalions—doddering old men who couldn't walk without help—were honored with front row seats.
The auditorium smelled of sweat, pine needles, and mothballs. It was cold in there—or perhaps it just seemed that way because I was barefoot on a tile-covered concrete floor. We stood backstage as the Master of Ceremonies, Clark Howell, publisher of the Constitution, introduced the luminaries. The crowd laughed when he called Clark Gable "Mr. Carole Lombard," and that phrase sent a surprising spurt of jealousy through me.
I grew restless during the introductions—dozens of them—and shoved M.L. He shoved me back, then put a finger to his lips. "Don't want Daddy seeing us," he whispered, and he was right. The last thing we wanted to do was anger Daddy King.
So we watched and we waited. And, when the signal came, we filed onto the stage like we filed into the choir loft in church. Bright lights nearly blinded me: all I could see were the faces of the white men in the front row, smiling at us as if we were babies doing a good deed. I scanned the seats for Carole Lombard and saw only darkness.
Even though Daddy King was our leader, Mrs. King was our director. She clapped her hands together for attention. We focused on her, and she led us through our repertoire—spirituals all, starting with "I Want Jesus to Walk with Me," and ending with "Plenty Good Room." I had solo that night, a small one, something that was supposed to sound like an impromptu descant on "Get on Board Little Children," and as it approached, I felt my hands grow clammier and clammier. I had to sing in front of people I usually watched in the darkness. I had to sing while they watched from darkness, unable to see their faces, just as they were unable to see mine from that screen in the movie house.
When my solo came, I stepped forward into the light, and sang with a passion and fervor I would never have again. For the first and last time in my life, the whole white world—the world that I knew—focused on me, and I put my entire soul into impressing them.
Then I stepped back, and there was a smattering of polite applause. The choir left the stage, our performance done, and was allowed to huddle around the edges of the auditorium as other blacks, dressed in the clothes of house slaves, cleared the tables and set up for the ball.
Kay Kyser's Orchestra put our little accomplishment to shame. To this day, I can't hear big band music without seeing a parade of Atlantans walking slowly in front of the crowd, the women in their crinolines clutching dried flowers and the men standing tall in Confederate gray. Some of the women were so nervous that when the spotlight hit them they would trip, and their men would have to hold them upright. Flashbulbs glinted off swords and brass buttons, and I pushed against the wall, decorated with banners and evergreen bows, wondering why I had bothered to come to this place that mourned a past I was glad was gone.
After a long time, the dancing started. Clark Gable, looking dapper in his tux, graciously led off with Mayor Hartsfield's daughter, and Vivien Leigh, wearing a long black gown with black and white feathers for sleeves, danced with the Mayor himself. As Atlanta society slowly made its way to the dance floor, Daddy King gathered us up, took us to our shoes, and told us to go home.
* * *
Strangely, I never talked to M.L. about that night. It was as if we hid it in a secret pocket of ourselves, to be forever remembered and never discussed. It wasn't a part of his official biography, and I never mentioned my Atlanta days to anyone. His father was censured by the Atlanta Baptist Ministers Union not only for performing at a segregated event, but also for performing at one that included the sins of dancing and drinking.
Daddy King never apologized for his involvement, and my daddy never found out about mine. Not that he would have had time to punish me even if he had.
The next morning, my father found himself in the middle of a mess larger than anything he could have imagined—and two days later, he and my mother would be dead.
For me, that was the end of everything, and the beginning of something I have only recently come to understand.
If that night had gone differently, I wouldn't be sitting here now, in this car, Jimmy at my side, a cold wind in my face, and terrible news on the radio. If that night had gone differently, I wouldn't be here—and maybe, just maybe, Martin wouldn't be dead. I might have seen what was in front of me, and I might have changed it.
Instead, I solved the central mystery of my life, and in doing so, forfeited everything I held dear. Everything, including someone I hadn't realized I still cared about.