A nice twist on the crime novel genre combines atypical insights into Latino culture with some truly lovely writing about the grace of salsa dancing.
Crime novels can be formulaic. In fact, if they're not formulaic, that can be a problem. A crime novelist needs to hit his marks. Even the best -- Elmore Leonard, John D. McDonald -- can be handcuffed to the requirements of the genre. Indeed, what makes them great is how elegantly they operate within the constraints of their form.
Gunmetal Black is the debut crime novel from Daniel Serrano, and it certainly begins with a classic genre scenario: the protagonist -- a tough but sensitive guy -- gets out of prison and is picked up by his old running buddy. Eddie has got dreams of going straight, but they're already in jeopardy, with his past catching up to him almost before he can imagine his future.
You've read this story a million times, right? And maybe that's exactly why you're willing to read it again, but surely you want this book to be somehow a twist on the usual. Serrano delivers that twist, and he writes with style and power.
Serrano's hero is Eddie Santiago, a Puerto Rican from the streets of Chicago with a history of gang activity, drug sales, and burglary. Oh, and murder. Eddie is no choirboy, but he dreams of getting out of the life and heading to Florida to start an authentic salsa record label. So, Serrano puts a nice twist on the genre by presenting atypical insights into Latino culture, including some truly lovely writing about the propulsion and grace of salsa and salsa dancing.
Narrated in the first person by Eddie, Gunmetal Black is a surprisingly lyrical book, filled with graceful sentences and potent imagery. The dialogue snaps realistically and fast, but Serrano is best when writing introspectively. Particularly when writing about music, Serrano positively sings. Here is Eddie, talking about playing congas in prison:
Beats ricocheted around the cell with the rumble of mythic stallions. Without thought, I yelled, 'Camino, Cubano!' like I heard on a record once. Black and Latino inmates gathered in and around my cell, and jammed with us, playing tin cups like cowbells, and even tapping out rhythms and melodies on the bars. Chiva's calloused hands made like jackhammers and butterfly wings all at once.
Daniel Serrano, as a wordsmith, knows what he is doing. There will be many more books from Serrano in the coming years.
Just as important as Serrano's language and his use of a cultural setting, however, is Serrano's success in plotting Gunmetal Black. Eddie is immediately likable, despite his past -- and despite his lasting friendship with both Tony, his former punk partner, and Pelón, the criminal mentor who drew Eddie and Tony deeper into the life. To keep him that way, Serrano resists the temptation to throw his hero into the kind of criminal action would make his post-prison redemption seem unlikely or absurd.
Does the book, then, get dull? No, because Serrano artfully blends flashbacks to Eddie's criminal past into the story of his post-lock-up existence. As readers, we get the thrill of Eddie the (somewhat) reluctant thug while still watching him struggle with the battle between his straight aspirations and the invitations of Tony and Pelón for him to return to crime.
The best influence in Eddie's new life is Xochitl a beautiful woman he meets at a salsa club. At first, of course, he lies to her about his past. Her expectations are high, and Eddie hopes to live up to them -- he gets a job mixing inks and establishes an interest in art and a sense of who he could become. There are several bad influences. Within an hour of leaving prison, Tony drags Eddie into his extortion business and then the two find themselves busted by a pair of corrupt cops. The cops appropriate the $40,000 that Eddie smuggled out of the prison, and they ultimately ask Eddie to be their snitch as they try to get the drop on Pelón's next big score: a daring robbery aboard a casino cruise on Halloween night.
Eddie planned to use that $40,000 to help start his salsa label, but now what? Tony and Pelón offer him more money and a return to the only profession he has known. Xochitl offers him an emotional connection, but this romantic life is little more than a dream already out of reach without way to make a reasonable living. The corrupt cops offer him lies and betrayal, but they promise never to leave him alone if he does not cooperate. Serrano's story does what all the fine crime novels do -- place a choice in the hands of a man who may or may not be corrupted. You finish the book because Eddie is a character whose story is worth completing in your heart.
Daniel Serrano has managed to create a crime novel that is traditional and new, a page-turner but far from simple or stupid. That should always be celebrated. Gunmetal Black does not, perhaps, crackle with innovation, nor does it brim with personal insights that would have spun the heads of Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett. But neither does it seem wrong to mention their names in this review. And that's not bad at all.