“Race” as a biological category differentiating humans has been a spurious and discredited marker for more than a century.
Yet even those who know that it is rubbish and militate against it are stuck with it.
Bill Fletcher, Jr. is a respected labor and social justice activist, currently field services director for the American Federation of Government Employees and author of the must-read They’re Bankrupting Us: And 20 Other Myths About Unions. The black activist, scholar and journalist is well placed to write meaningfully on where class and the color line meet. He does so again in his newest book, a highly readable and well-told crime novel.
The Man Who Fell From The Sky, his first effort as a novelist, does not disappoint. It shows him to be not just a sage storyteller but no less than a prized canary, warning of dangers past and present.
The 1970-based plot is vintage good stuff, with enough twists to keep the reader guessing. The top draw mystery involves the ferreting out of a murderer whose identity is suspiciously masked as either a maniac or an avenging angel in exterminating a clutch of ex-U.S. World War II army airmen. The central figure investigating the deaths is David Gomes, a journalist of Cape Verdean extraction and the Americanized child of immigrants of mixed African and Portuguese heritage, typical of the islands’ diaspora who came to inhabit much of the Massachusetts and Rhode Island coastlines. That mixed heritage alone makes the story a cultural inquiry in itself, with many Cape Verdeans ranging from white to dark skins even within the same family, making identity in a racist society especially complex.
Gomes is at pains to explain that his name is not pronounced like the Spanish “GO-mezz.” He is not the hardboiled, scandal-mongering newspaper reporter that often inhabits many a crime novel and “B” movie. Instead, he is a decent, young general assignment reporter for a sleepy, understaffed weekly newspaper who unexpectedly finds himself chasing down a big story that could cost him his life. Fletcher catches the times nicely, with pithy references to radical insurgencies, the television series Mannix and hurrahs for Jimi Hendrix. As the plot develops, Gomes comes to see that the murders are likely linked, either tangentially or instrumentally, to the army’s earlier Jim Crow policy of restricting airmen’s positions not only to men but to white men.
What makes the story work so well is not only its plot line but its capture of time and place. There is the bright and helpful bank teller who in any nonsexist society would be the bank manager. There are the bumbling FBI agents, insisting that the murders are linked — and on the basis of no information — to the Black Panther Party and efforts to aid draft resistors fleeing to Canada. There’s the evocation of Cape Cod as not only idyllic physically but a locus for excellent, inexpensive cuisine. The final plot unraveling is worth the reader’s wait. Enjoy this well-crafted, politically engaging thriller.
The Man Who Fell From The Sky
By Bill Fletcher
Hard Ball Press, 2018
Illustration by Michael Grant.