Now, I’m just going to say this right at the top. I’m one of the whitest people you’re likely to ever meet. I have German and Irish blood, and look like I should burst into flames when I’m outside. And I’m born and raised in Colorado, one of the whitest places in the country. And yet, over the last few years, I’ve come to really love just about everything about the blaxploitation genre. I don’t know what it is about them exactly, but these fun and crazy action movies from the 1970’s have become some of my favorite stuff to put on and just have a great time. And it’s not just the movies. I’ve talked before about my undying love for Luke Cage, and how his character was a direct response from Marvel at the sudden interest in such characters, and rereading some of his classic stories is a hell of an experience. So of course, these two interests led me to check out a comic book series from a couple years ago that was about one of the most famous characters from the blaxpolitation genre, John Shaft. I had seen the Shaft movies, and loved them, so I went into the Shaft comic series expecting a good time. What I ended up getting was an incredibly moving and poignant look at a character that was more often than not portrayed as a bit of a punch line. It was a great series, and it really got me hooked on the great writer David F Walker (who is also currently writing an amazing series at Marvel about Luke Cage and Iron Fist). So when I heard that Walker was going to be continuing the life of his interpretation of Shaft, and that it was going to be a prose novel, I was excited.
And it did not disappoint. Now, I’ve never read any of the Shaft novels yet, so I don’t really know how this stacks up with them, but I do know that I had a hell of a time with this novel. It picks up some time after the events of the Shaft film, and seems to blend a combination of establishes Shaft characters, and the ones that Walker introduced in his comic series. This is a Shaft who is haunted by the things he has seen and done, both on the streets of Harlem and the jungles of Vietnam, and who really just seems to be trying to keep his head down and make it through life. But, like any great literary private eye, that goal is utterly smashes when he answers his phone one night and is drawn into an insane turf-war between rival gangsters in Harlem. He ends up finding the leader of the most powerful gang in Harlem killed, Knocks Persons, gets shot along with an old friend of his, and is dragged kicking and screaming into this complicated war that’s pitting several different gangsters, crooked cops, and a sociopathic childhood friend of his into a vicious battle. Along the way Shaft picks up what seems like the only two legitimate police officers in New York, and starts to help them track down both the killer of Knocks, and accidently the truth about the life of his father. We get an action-packed noir tale that has Shaft traversing the Big Apple and its Burroughs, all while trying to survive and find some justice and keep an even darker and more damaging criminal enterprise from rising in his city.
I’ve talked a lot of this site about my love for the hardboiled detective genre, in all its shapes and sizes, and this novel became a welcome addition to that passion. There’s something about the emotionally damaged archetype of a private eye, just trying to get by in life, and being dragged into an insane plot that tends to end up way above his pay grade that really clicks for me. And this novel took that formula, and added the racial politics of being a black man in the 70’s along with some really poignant and engaging pathos from Shaft’s father and his wartime mental anguish. Typically noir protagonists can be a little one-note. They exist more to go through the clues and have insane adventures than to really get much emotional depth. There are obviously exceptions to that generalization, but most novels you read about private eyes feature main characters that are essentially blank slates. But not here. Honestly, I could read an entire novel written by Walker about Shaft trying to come to terms with the things he’s done in his life, and try to reach some closure about that. Shaft became a sympathetic and three-dimensional character for the first time for me in this novel, and I ended up finding myself rooting for him to learn the truth about his father and close that dark and painful chapter on his life. Plus, we get a really fun and twisting crime caper thrown in as well. I really don’t know if the rest of the Shaft novels are anything like this, or if they’re more disposable fun like the Shaft films, but I’m more tempted than ever before to check them out, and if David F Walker gets to write any more of these novels, or any more of the comic series, I’ll be eagerly waiting to check them out.
P.S. – If you’re confused by the title of this article, check out the poster for the original Shaft film.
Shaft’s Revenge was written by David F Walker, 2016.