‘The Man Who Fell from the Sky’, Bill Fletcher Jr.’s new crime novel
Bill Fletcher, Jr.

As I was finishing Bill Fletcher Jr.’s debut novel The Man Who Fell from the Sky, the Ralph Northam scandal was unfolding in Virginia, about which Fletcher powerfully weighed in.

Northam’s apparent participation in a racist episode some thirty years ago, documented in a photograph in his medical school yearbook that had lain dormant and forgotten, suddenly erupted as if from out of nowhere—as if it fell from the sky—threatening at the time to destroy Northam’s political career and causing many to call on him to resign Virginia’s governorship.

Northam, now positioning himself as anti-racist, launching his gubernatorial campaign in part by speaking out against the white supremacist violence committed in Charlottesville in the summer of 2017, had never come clean or made amends for his evidently racist actions of the past.

His individual story in many ways reflects the story of America and its relationship to and lack of serious accountability for its racist national past, which, arguably, is what in part hobbles the nation in any effort to address and overcome racism in the present.

The Northam episode really drove home the story Fletcher’s gripping detective, or crime, novel carefully weaves.

The novel opens one warm June morning in 1970 when Thomas Julius Smith, respected owner of a construction firm on Cape Cod, breakfasts quietly with his wife Marge and then, while getting ready to head off to work in his truck, is murdered by sniper fire out on his driveway.

T.J. Smith is a well-liked member of the community, living a life of integrity that would, from a present-day perspective, seem to inspire no enemies.

As journalist David Gomes and police detective Vincent Amato each begin to investigate the murder, they find themselves sucked into a vortex of clues that drive them back to World War II, when Smith was a pilot in an Army Air Corps squad. Even more specifically, the clues lead them through a harrowing drama of racism and racist violence in the past and present of the United States, as well as one of the history and legacy of colonialism around the globe.

The novel develops these issues in its exploration and dramatization of relationships within the Cape Verdean communities of New England, particularly the Cape Cod region where the bulk of the plot is set. Indeed, one of the appealing and fascinating dimensions of the novel is this ethnographic element, as Fletcher portrays the culture, psychology and divisions within the Cape Verdean community. People from the Cape Verde islands, surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean directly west of Senegal, began migrating to the United States in the early 19th century as Portugal’s colonial prosperity faded along with the decline of the lucrative African slave trade. Cape Verdeans found escape possible when they were recruited by whaling ships from Massachusetts and Rhode Island.

For readers like me who know little about these Cape Verdean communities and the complex relationships within them, particularly as they relate to Blackness or Black identity, Fletcher’s portrayals contributed greatly to the page-turning quality of the novel.

These cultural elements are not in any way mere decorative features of the story, but vital to the process of detection itself in the novel—and to the journalist-detective Gomes as well, who is himself of Cape Verdean descent. Gomes’s effective investigation of Smith’s murder depends upon his ability to solve a historical puzzle, and indeed a historical crime linked to the murder he is investigating in the present. Solving that historical puzzle and the racially motivated crime of the past drives Gomes and Amato into the history of racism and racial violence in the U.S. as well as the legacy of Portuguese colonialism as manifested in the racial ideology and residual colonial psychology at work within elements of the Cape Verdean community in America.

Weaving a tale that contains an intricate drama of racial passing, thus fitting his novel within a prominent genre within the African-American literary tradition, Fletcher centers “race” itself, in all its facets, as the mystery to be resolved, or at least understood, exploring in particular the psychological consequences of colonization for people of color around the globe, and internal colonization and racism for African Americans and other peoples of color in the United States.

Among the many compelling scenes Fletcher sketches is a Gomes family barbeque. Fletcher works this scene beautifully to portray in full force the array of racial attitudes and racial self-images animating the Cape Verdean community—from racial self-hatred to denial, to pride and militance—and, really, African America as a whole. At one point, for example, Gomes’s uncle, referencing the revolutionary nationalist leader and intellectual Amilcar Cabral, who led the decolonization movement against Portuguese rule in Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde, yells at another relative, “You keep talking about Cabral. Cabral, Cabral, Cabral. Give it a rest! Listen, we’re Portuguese. Yeah, our families are from Cape Verde, but we’re Portuguese. I’m sick of you calling me ‘black.’ Our ancestors were never slaves!”

Such a moment of dialogue will give readers a sense of the political and historical exploration and intensity informing the plot of detection as well as a sense of the way the novel explores issues of identity, race, and colonialism in psychological, cultural, and historical terms. Fletcher does an absolutely outstanding job combining a detective thriller with sophisticated and riveting political exploration. I have to say, I’ve never read a crime novel, maybe not any novel, that mentions such key figures in anti-colonial resistance and thought as Amilcar Cabral and Frantz Fanon.

The novel takes place in the early 1970s—the Richard Nixon years—amidst movements for liberation in the United States and ahead of the 1974 Carnation Revolution in Portugal which overthrew its authoritarian regime and also led to Portugal’s withdrawal from its African colonies (one of the rare instances in history where it can aptly be said that the colonies liberated the motherland).

These historical contexts of racism and colonialism matter and work directly into the plot and the processes of investigation and detection themselves. Gomes, for example, finds himself under investigation by the Feds the more he delves into solving the crime because of his own associations with Black radicals and previous stories he had reported. Indeed, the more he unpacks the history of race in the United States, the more he finds his own freedom and safety threatened by the state.

Fletcher even dramatizes the role of the capitalist economy in constraining Gomes’s ability to unravel this history. As a reporter, his boss—also a potential love interest (the author weaves in an interesting romantic plot)—pressures him to move on from this story because of her need to produce other stories for the newspaper and because of the costs involved in supporting his pursuit of this murder mystery.

Fletcher also innovates on the traditional crime novel genre to rethink and radically critique criminality itself. While the detective fiction genre has often been viewed as a conservative genre, committed to identifying the guilty individual and thus restoring law and order in the larger social whole, it also has the radical potential to drive us back into the past and thus develop a historical materialist understanding of our contemporary world.

Think about it. In any murder mystery, the story opens with a crime, and the task of the detective is to reconstruct the history that produced the criminal behavior. The genre rather lends itself to a homey Marxist story hour. In the case of The Man Who Fell from the Sky, without giving too much away, I hope, I can tell you that while we discover the story behind T.J. Smith’s murder and the identity of the person who pulled the trigger, we are left to consider whether that person is a criminal or a revolutionary, to think about what is just political resistance and what criminal violence.

Fletcher, in his acknowledgments, tips his cap to Walter Mosley, author of the Easy Rawlins mystery series, for demonstrating the possibilities inherent in the mystery genre for political analysis and revelation. He very much follows in Mosley’s footsteps, availing himself of the form to explore the history of racism in the United States.

Having read Mosley’s work, I feel confident saying readers will enjoy Fletcher’s fiction just as much. For those familiar with Fletcher’s significant body of political writings, with The Man Who Fell From the Sky, I can promise you’ll get the political punch and a riveting story.

Bill Fletcher Jr.
The Man Who Fell from the Sky
Hardball Press, Brooklyn, NY, 2018


CONTRIBUTOR

Tim Libretti
Tim Libretti

Tim Libretti teaches in the English Department at a public university in Chicago where he lives with his two sons.

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