Down and Dirty

by Gammy L. Singer

Published by Kensington Publishing

225 pages, 2006





Mooning Over Harlem

Reviewed by Cindy Chow


As this year's Oscar-winning song says, "you know it's hard out here for a pimp when he tryin to get this money for the rent." But it's not a whole lot easier for the landlord who's trying to collect that rent payment. Especially when he's a Harlem landlord, the year is 1980, and the murder of a pimp has just put his mentor and friend into the slammer. That's the set-up for a surprisingly upbeat and entertaining novel called Down and Dirty, the second "Landlord's Tale" mystery by Gammy L. Singer.

Amos Brown is an ex-con and numbers runner who enterprisingly used gambling profits to purchase several brownstones in Harlem, New York, which he rents to a selective group of tenants while always fighting the uphill battle to keep out drug dealers and low-lifes. Since collecting rent is something he does unenthusiastically and often unsuccessfully, Amos still relies on a friendly game of cards to pay his bills. It's at one of these games that he first hears about his friend Deacon Steadwell being arrested for the murder of Dap Jones, a scoundrelish pimp whom Steadwell had loudly and repeatedly accused of stealing his fur coats. That Steadwell himself stole those garments first is not in question; but the old man does claim to be innocent of homicide. By the ample use of favors and the application of pressure, Amos gets Steadwell a powerful but sleazy attorney, as well as bail money, resulting unfortunately in Steadwell's immediate disappearance.

Determined to prove his friend's innocence -- and hang onto his bail bucks -- Amos has two paths to follow: one of which should take him to the missing coats, while the other is being trod by the many hookers from Dap's stable who are scattering into the breeze now that he's been buried in the dirt. Not surprisingly, these paths seem to become one when Amos encounters a surprising number of whores dressed to the nines. In fur. Unfortunately, among those fleeing women is a crack addict, the mother of a child named Josephine, who has been left in the uncertain care of a man recently discovered to be inflicted by the "homo cancer." The mother's reappearance only causes more turmoil for the entire tenement, as her track record as a parent is as ugly as the tracks on her arms.

Of all the characters in Down and Dirty, one of the strongest turns out to be the Harlem neighborhood itself. With the "respectable" people fleeing the area as quickly as they can (this was back in 1980, remember, before Harlem's recent social and economic renaissance), local property values dived and made it possible for Amos Brown to become the "Harlem Don." He deserves that title for more than mere property ownership, though, as it's his determination to stay in the borough that makes him unique. One of the reasons his relationship with an ex-girlfriend withered, he believes, was because she betrayed Harlem in her ambition to leave it. As Amos proclaims:

Harlem was a war zone, and good people were leaving. Me, I couldn't leave. My itch, this Harlem, good or bad. Knew its every block and corner. Wasn't I born right there on Harlem Hospital -- on the corner of 135th and Lenox? Housing Urban Development was supposed to take this community, raise it up, and what did they do? Built a damn garage. All that fuss over the State Senate Building and the city ends up building a damn garage. And what about the people's needs?

Meanwhile, I fought daily to maintain what I had while looking to the future, and a lot of my energy was devoted to keeping the drug dealers off my block and out of my buildings. Crack houses, like goody-palaces, had surfaced all over Harlem. I'd closed the deal on my third piece of property, another brownstone located just one block over -- and the ink hadn't even dried before I found out that two crack houses, independent of each other, had set up shop on the same block and were doing a thriving business.

It hasn't been easy, but Amos has managed to fill his own buildings with renters who have become something of a family to him. Which, considering his cruel, murderous and thankfully dead father, absent mother and the cold aunt whose passing he similarly does not regret, is a welcome thing. Even though it's Christmastime, there's not too much cheer going around. In addition to the issues of Dap Jones and Steadwell, the neighborhood has been rocked by the demise of Harry Bridges, a powerful mover, shaker and drug lord whose death leaves a gap in Harlem politics, as well as the Harlem crime scene. That Bridges was the uncle of Amos's ex-girlfriend and had wanted our hero dead doesn't make mourning his passing easy; but the power gap Bridges left behind could have a definite impact on Amos' life.

As Amos negotiates the world of pimps, hookers, drug lords and Russian crime bosses, he somehow manages to keep his head up and his humor intact. Sure, he may succumb to the occasional damsel in distress, but hey, no one said he had to be a monk. Throughout it all, Amos retains his love of Harlem and his dedication to improving the place he loves.

With its gritty language, frequent references to women's body parts and the riffin' on one's friends, Down and Dirty maintains a "street" attitude that appears authentic. Although it may take a chapter or two for one to ease into this story's dialect and casual language, the reader is soon transported on a ride through Harlem and shown all of its denizens -- good, bad, ugly and, well, not totally ugly.

An award-winning actress and director, author Singer continues the unique and completely unforgettable series she began with A Landlord's Tale (2005). While the plot of Down and Dirty moves along quite swiftly, the characters, distinctive to their setting, are the ones who command this yarn and make it so memorable. If I haven't made this clear yet, what also resonates here is a love of Harlem, summed up at one point by Amos:

A lot of famous people came out of Harlem, and why? Harlem shaped you, hones you, made you strong, threw the kitchen sink at you, and made you catch that sucker and hug it to your chest with all your might. I'd said it before. My bitch, this Harlem -- yes, it was. | September 2006


Cindy Chow is a librarian at Kaneohe Public Library, located on the Windward side of Oahu, Hawaii. She also reviews books for The No Name Café site.