Kris Nelscott can lay claim to the strongest series of detective novels now being written by an American author." -Salon
Winner of the Herodotus Award For Best Historical Mystery
Private Investigator Smokey Dalton works for Memphis, Tennessee's black community. He has almost no interaction with the white hierarchy, even though they exist only blocks away. So he's surprised the day a white woman walks into his Beale Street office.
Laura Hathaway has sought him out because he's a beneficiary in her mother's will, and Laura wants to know why. So does Smokey. He's never heard of the Hathaways, but his search will take him on a journey that will change everything he's ever known.
Set against the backdrop of the strike and protests that will end with Dr. Martin Luther King's assassination, A Dangerous Road combines the politics of race, betrayal, unexpected love, and the terrible cost of trust into a story so memorable the Mystery Writers of America chose it as one of the top five novels of the year.
"It's not hard to draw parallels between Nelscott's PI Smokey Dalton and Walter Mosley's Easy Rawlins, another secretive, canny black man trying to solve mysteries while circumspectly navigating the white world. But Dalton's no knock-off...
About the Author
The first Smokey Dalton novel, A Dangerous Road, won the Herodotus Award for Best Historical Mystery and was short-listed for the Edgar Award for Best Novel; the second, Smoke-Filled Rooms, was a PNBA Book Award finalist; and the third, Thin Walls, was one of the Chicago Tribune's best mysteries of the year.
Kirkus chose Days of Rage as one of the top ten mysteries of the year.
Entertainment Weekly says her equals are Walter Mosley and Raymond Chandler.
Booklist calls the Smokey Dalton books "a high-class crime series" and Salon says "Kris Nelscott can lay claim to the strongest series of detective novels now being written by an American author."
Read an Excerpt
The rioting is finally over, and the fires have burned out. Washington, D.C., is a blackened ruin, and so are the west and south sides of Chicago. Pittsburgh, Newark, Hartford, and Trenton have all suffered serious damage. So have many other major cities.
Jimmy and I drive the green Oldsmobile that belonged to Henry's church and listen to the news. We hardly speak to each other any more. There isn't much to say. Martin Luther King, Jr., is dead, assassinated in our hometown, in our neighborhood, and both Jimmy and I played small roles in his death. Inadvertent roles, of course, but roles nonetheless.
We drive through fallow cornfields, the ground muddy with spring thaw. Some of the areas smell of manure as the farmers prepare for spring planting. I keep the windows of the Oldsmobile down despite the chill. I need to do something to stay awake. I have been driving for two weeks straight, and I am getting tired. Soon we'll have to find a place to stay -- Jimmy needs stability, as all ten-year-olds do-but I haven't found any place that I feel safe in. The nearby cities are ruined -- the black neighborhoods destroyed -- and the two of us wouldn't fit into small-town America, at least not here, where we are driving, in the center of the Midwest.
Jimmy doesn't know it, but I have backtracked several times, afraid to cross the Mississippi. I know little of the western United States and what I do know, I don't like. So every night, after we find a roadside motel (I've been following the old gospel route, stopping in places that I know will accept us), I stay awake and pore over maps, hoping to find a home.
I despair of ever finding one.
I know I'll have to choose some place soon. The money is running out. I need to make some decisions for both of us, decisions that will determine our future.
But my mind doesn't focus on the future. Instead, it latches onto the past. The last two months are so fresh that I dream of them. With the clarity of hindsight, I can see the warning signs, the ones we missed-the ones all of us missed, from Martin's lieutenants to the Committee on the Move for Equality, which we called COME, to the Memphis Ministers Association.
I'm the one who failed the most. I'm the one trained to see patterns, the one who made his living putting pieces together, and I knew that something was going to happen. I simply hadn't expected that something to be Martin's death.
I tell myself, as I clutch the big heavy steering wheel and sit upright in the Oldsmobile's soft plastic seats, that I couldn't have seen it. The case I was working on was personal and absorbing; it took all of my attention. But that lie is breaking down under two weeks of strain.
Is that my fault? I don't know. I wasn't in Martin's inner circle. I wasn't in anyone's inner circle, although I probably could have been. But joining wasn't-isn't-my nature. It hasn't been since I was Jimmy's age, back in the days when Martin and I were friends, when I called him M.L. just like everyone else did, when he was nothing more than a little boy with powerful eyes and an even more powerful father. Those days ended in a single night for me, the longest night of my entire life: December 16, 1939.
But all the seeds for everything that followed were sown two days earlier. That night, I used to believe, inspired Martin to his life's work-and perhaps it also influenced mine. That night, the Old South and the New met face-to-face in a way that they wouldn't do again for nearly twenty-nine years. They would meet again on April 4, 1968 -- a little over two weeks ago. Then the New South faced the Old and lost, as an assassin's bullet tore into Martin's throat-the home of his golden voice.
The night of December 14, 1939, wasn't as dramatic, at least for most of America. But in Atlanta, it was the biggest single event of the twentieth century. That night, Atlanta began two days of parties to celebrate the premiere of the movie Gone with the Wind.
And Martin and I were there.
The festivities actually began the evening before, as Hollywood's biggest stars rode through the cobblestoned streets of Atlanta. I had snuck out of the house-my father didn't cotton to all the hoopla surrounding Gone with the Wind, which he (rightly, as it turns out) saw as perpetuating the white myths of the Old South. In the middle of the afternoon, I secured a spot on the corner of Peachtree and Ellis.
It was December and cold, but people began lining up as early as noon for a parade that wouldn't start until four. I wasn't the only black on that corner. Right beside me were the daughters of the Grand -- John Wesley Dobbs, the unofficial black mayor of Atlanta. He too would have been angry if he had known his daughters were there. I had heard him say only the day before that the book Gone with the Wind was not a great literary piece and it wouldn't last long. The Grand was right about many things in his life, but not that.
In those days, Atlanta was a small provincial city, with a population of perhaps 300,000. There had to be that many people in the streets that afternoon, many of whom had driven in from rural areas of Georgia. Strangely, the crowd didn't shove or push. We stood, talking softly among ourselves as we waited, hoping to catch a glimpse of the stars we had watched on the big screen.
I didn't care so much about the movie, but I wanted to see Carole Lombard, who I thought was the prettiest woman I'd ever seen -- a sentiment I'd once expressed to my aunt when she was visiting. She slapped me. Hard. Little black boys like me didn't ogle rich white women like Carole Lombard, not even on the big screen. I learned that lesson early, and I learned it well.
But that didn't stop me from standing on Peachtree Street, right in the center of the route from Candler Field, where the stars had landed that afternoon, to the Georgian Terrace Hotel, where they would stay for the next three nights. The street was all lit up, and ahead were klieg lights, brought in special for the premiere. Banners and balloons hung from every balcony, and most buildings displayed the Confederate flag.
It was not my celebration, and yet I cheered with the rest as the first of thirty convertibles appeared, flanked by police motorcycles. Confetti fell like snow and somewhere a band was playing "Dixie." I held up my hand and waved, until I realized that seated in that car were people I didn't know. Behind them was a car filled with Daughters of the Confederacy, in period costume. My hand went down, and so did the hands around me. We waited until the stars started showing up: Laurence Olivier (Vivien Leigh's husband) and Olivia de Haviland in a convertible with feathered banners on the windshield, Evelyn Keyes in another, and Vivien Leigh herself riding with David O. Selznick and Governor Eurith D. Rivers.
Around me the cheers and whistles and hollers grew. I screamed with everyone else, standing on my frozen toes so that I could see the Gables as they passed. And they finally did, in a car with Mayor William Hartsfield. Clark Gable was closest to me, wearing a cloth coat, his hair slicked down, his head bare despite the cold. He waved his hat and grinned as if he were really enjoying himself. The men flanked Carole Lombard, and all I saw of her was a fleeting, rather nervous grin, a leather-clad hand making a small, almost hesitant wave, and the flash of her famous platinum blond hair.
And then they were gone. Beside me, Geekie Dobbs complained that the cars were going too fast; she hadn't been able to see. Her sister June shushed her as a male voice beside me asked them what had they expected-the stars to get out and walk? We watched the rest of the parade -- young men wearing their grandfathers' Confederate uniforms, more cars carrying more luminaries, most of whom I didn't recognize -- and then we waited as the crowd dispersed.
I don't remember what I told my father when I came in the house, confetti on my coat and in my hair. He must have known where I had been and what I had done, but he said nothing. Later he did deliver a lecture at dinner about black history -- one of his favorite topics -- and the lecture centered on the portrait of Abraham Lincoln my parents kept in the dining room.
At the time, I wondered if M.L. got the same lecture. Looking back on it, I doubt that he did.
I saw M.L. the next night as we gathered in the basement of the Ebenezer Baptist Church. The sixty-voice choir, under the leadership of M.L.'s father, Martin Luther King, Sr., known even then as Daddy King, had agreed to perform at the most prestigious event of the premiere: the ball held by Atlanta's Junior League.
The Junior League was the center of white Atlanta society. Run by southern matrons so staunchly conservative that they often didn't admit wealthy members of their own community, the Junior League sponsored many of the "important" social events, including the debutante ball. A girl who did not debut properly in white society was never admitted into the Junior League and, ironically, one of those girls whose debuts failed to impress the league nearly twenty years before was Margaret Mitchell, the author of Gone with the Wind. Because she had been so badly and consistently snubbed by the league, Mitchell didn't attend the Junior League ball on Friday night -- snubbing them in return -- but the rest of Atlanta did, including several hundred blacks.
Only we didn't go as invited guests. Some of us were hired as chauffeurs to take whites in period carriages to the Atlanta Municipal Auditorium, where the ball was being held. Others served as ushers, and the rest of us performed.
The Ebenezer Baptist Church Choir had been assigned its costumes, and we put them on in the chilly basement of the church. The women wore patched dresses with aprons and Aunt Jemima kerchiefs over their hair. The men wore torn pants too short for their legs and shirts with the sleeves rolled up to reveal powerful arms. M.L. and I wore miniature versions of the men's clothes, with one addition: straw hats that were coming apart on top. The adults were dressed as slaves; we were dressed as pickaninnies.
When we arrived at the Atlanta Municipal Auditorium, Daddy King made us take off our shoes and leave them by the back door. We spent the rest of the night barefoot, because he wanted to make sure our costumes were authentic.
Five thousand rich white people attended that event -- the cream of Atlanta society. When we went out on stage, there were tables on the floor. The heads of Atlanta businesses sat at those tables-and would later move to the balcony, among them the famous golfer Bobby Jones, former mayor Robert F. Maddox, and former judge Shepard Bryant, along with their families. Slightly behind them were well-known northerners: William Paley of CBS, Harold Vanderbilt, and Laurance Rockefeller. I learned who all of these people were much later.
I was more concerned with the stage. It looked like a reproduction of a Greek Revival plantation home, with four eighteen-foot ionic columns. My stomach fluttered at that; I knew that standing in front of it, the Ebenezer Church Baptist Choir would look even more like the slaves we were dressed as.
Surprisingly none of the adults balked at performing. M.L. made a soft sound of protest in his throat when he saw it, and I thought of my father and knew I could never tell him of the humiliation I had volunteered for.
What made things worse were all the people in Confederate and Old South attire. Women wore their grandmothers' hoop skirts; men their grandfathers' gray uniforms. The surviving members of Atlanta's Confederate battalions -- doddering old men who couldn't walk without help -- were honored with front row seats.
The auditorium smelled of sweat, pine needles, and mothballs. It was cold in there -- or perhaps it just seemed that way because I was barefoot on a tile-covered concrete floor. We stood backstage as the master of ceremonies, Clark Howell, publisher of the Constitution, introduced the luminaries. The crowd laughed when he called Clark Gable "Mr. Carole Lombard," and that phrase sent a surprising spurt of jealousy through me.
I grew restless during the introductions-dozens of them -- and shoved M.L. He shoved me back, then put a finger to his lips. "Don't want Daddy seeing us," he whispered, and he was right. The last thing we wanted to do was anger Daddy King.
So we watched and we waited. And, when the signal came, we filed onto the stage like we filed into the choir loft in church. Bright lights nearly blinded me: all I could see were the faces of the white men in the front row, smiling at us as if we were babies doing a good deed. I scanned the seats for Carole Lombard and saw only darkness.
Even though Daddy King was our leader, Mrs. King was our director. She clapped her hands together for attention. We focused on her, and she led us through our repertoire - spirituals all, starting with "I Want Jesus to Walk with Me," and ending with "Plenty Good Room." I had a solo that night, a small one, something that was supposed to sound like an impromptu descant on "Get on Board Little Children," and as it approached, I felt my hands grow clammier and clammier. I had to sing in front of people I usually watched in the darkness. I had to sing while they watched from darkness, unable to see their faces, just as they were unable to see mine from that screen in the movie house.
When my solo came, I stepped forward into the light and sang with a passion and fervor I would never have again. For the first and last time in my life, the whole white worldthe world that I knew -- focused on me, and I put my entire soul into impressing them.
Then I stepped back, and there was a smattering of polite applause. The choir left the stage, our performance done, and was allowed to huddle around the edges of the auditorium as other blacks, dressed in the clothes of house slaves, cleared the tables and set up for the ball.
Kay Kyser's Orchestra put our little accomplishment to shame. To this day, I can't hear big band music without seeing a parade of Atlantans walking slowly in front of the crowd, the women in their crinolines clutching dried flowers and the men standing tall in Confederate gray. Some of the women were so nervous that when the spotlight hit them they would trip, and their men would have to hold them upright. Flashbulbs glinted off swords and brass buttons, and I pushed against the wall, decorated with banners and evergreen bows, wondering why I had bothered to come to this place that mourned a past I was glad was gone.
After a long time, the dancing started. Clark Gable, looking dapper in his tux, graciously led off with Mayor Hartsfield's daughter, and Vivien Leigh, wearing a long black gown with black and white feathers for sleeves, danced with the mayor himself. As Atlanta society slowly made its way to the dance floor, Daddy King gathered us up, took us to our shoes, and told us to go home.
Strangely, I never talked to M.L. about that night. It was as if we hid it in a secret pocket of ourselves, to be forever remembered and never discussed. It wasn't a part of his official biography, and I never mentioned my Atlanta days to anyone. His father was censured by the Atlanta Baptist Ministers Union not only for performing at a segregated event, but also for performing at one that included the sins of dancing and drinking.
Daddy King never apologized for his involvement, and my daddy never found out about mine. Not that he would have had time to punish me even if he had.
The next morning, my father found himself in the middle of a mess larger than anything he could have imagined -- and two days later, he and my mother would be dead.
For me, that was the end of everything, and the beginning of something I have only recently come to understand.
If that night had gone differently, I wouldn't be sitting here now, in this car, Jimmy at my side, a cold wind in my face, and terrible news on the radio. If that night had gone differently, I wouldn't be here -- and maybe, just maybe, Martin wouldn't be dead. I might have seen what was in front of me, and I might have changed it.
Instead, I solved the central mystery of my life, and in doing so, forfeited everything I held dear. Everything, including someone I hadn't realized I still cared about.
A Dangerous Road. Copyright © 2000 by White Mist Mountain. All rights reserved.
Exclusive Author Essay
Writing A Dangerous Road by Kris Nelscott
I've been collecting books on 1968 for the past 20 years. I never knew why I was collecting 1968 books. I just knew that one day they'd become important.
Then I read an essay that mentioned an incident glossed over or left out of official biographies: In 1939, Martin Luther King Jr. was present at Atlanta's huge Gone with the Wind celebration. His father, Daddy King, had agreed to let the Ebenezer Baptist Church Choir perform at the Junior League Ball held for Atlanta's white society. That's shocking enough to me, but what made it worse was that the senior Reverend King allowed his choir to be dressed as slaves and his son, who would become the most influential civil rights leader of the 20th century, to be dressed as a pickaninny.
The Old South and the New South collided in the person of Martin Luther King Jr. that night, and such a collision wouldn't happen again until April 4, 1968, when someone assassinated him.
The moment I finished reading that essay, I had a novel in mind. I didn't want to write about King, not directly. But I did want to write about the collisions of the Old and New South, and the way an instant can change the world.
But ideas are not novels. Novels are stories, first and foremost, and the best novels are about people. I knew that there were other black children at that Gone with the Wind premiere. They had to have felt some of the same things MLK felt that night. They had to have lived some of the same things he did.
As I considered this, Smokey Dalton came into my mind. Smokey, an odd-jobs man who is really a private eye, suffered a huge family tragedy the weekend of the premiere. Because of that tragedy, he chose to walk a different road than MLK and yet saw that road intersect with his old friend's just before MLK died.
Smokey solves crimes, of course, and he solves an important one in A Dangerous Road. But he also sees such crimes in a larger context, the context of a world where the politics are personal and often a matter of life and death.
I didn't re-create Smokey's 1968 out of those books I bought. They were merely the beginning. I remember that year vividly, and to help myself recall even more, I went to Memphis while researching A Dangerous Road. Memphis is a curious city; it tears down most of its history. But the Lorraine Motel still stands. It now houses the National Civil Rights Museum, probably the most powerful museum in America.
Martin Luther King's room remains as it was the night he died, a visual re-creation of an era long gone. You can feel the horrible violence of the place. And you can stare across the street at the area from which the shots were fired. You can see the narrow concrete balcony where Dr. King breathed his last, and those moments -- the shock, the horror, the incredible loss -- are as clear now as they were then.
History lives and breathes around us. History creates us and places us where we are.
Nineteen sixty-eight and I aren't done. I'm still collecting books and videos on that year. Smokey and I aren't done either. He moves into his own future, taking me with him, reminding me of a time when the world was perilously close to collapse, where the only thing that held us together was the strength of a handful of people.
People like Smokey.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I read a lot of sci fi as well as mysteries. I discovered Kris in the sci fi genre, read everything of hers I can get my hands on, and looked forward to getting her Smoky Dalton books as her backlist became available. This is the first in the series. It just blew me away, even knowing what a great writer she is and that I could expect a good read from her any day: even for her, this story stands out. No wonder it won awards. I also read Kris's work to learn the writing craft. I am still learning but have gotten far enough to know that the difference between good and great writing is not just creating memorable and credible characters, it's connecting your readers to those characters. This book is the one I'll reread when I need reminded of how to do it. I like Easy Rawlins, but Kris's craft is such that I don't just like Smoky Dalton, I understood him, empathized with him, and can't wait to see what he does next. I am so glad there are more of his stories, but my budget for this month is doomed.
This was one of the best mysteries I've ever read. It is set in Memphis, Tennessee, during the sanitation workers' strike in 1968. The whole reason Martin Luther King was in Memphis, where he was assassinated, was to try and quell the strike, and these events are explored in detail while remaining in the background of a mystery: why did Smokey Dalton, a black P.I., receive a $10,000 legacy from a white woman he's never even heard of? Smokey joins forces with the white woman's daughter in more ways than one to try to unravel the secrets of her past - and his. That's all I'll say about it because I don't want to spoil the ending but this is definitely a story set during a fascinating time and well worth reading.
Nelscott's novel, set in 1968 Memphis during the sanitation workers' strike, takes us back to the time of the civil rights movement. Protagonist Smokey Dalton is a black private investigator who grew up with Martin Luther King in Atlanta. In 1939, during the grand opening of 'Gone With the Wind,' Dalton's parents are lynched and he is spirited away to another town to be brought up by a foster family. Dalton never knew why his parents were murdered. Now, in 1969, a young,well-to-do white woman from Chicago, Laura Hathaway, shows up at his office. Her mother has left him $10,000 in her will. Laura wants to know why. Smokey warns her that if he looks into the reasons he was given the money, she may learn more than she wants to know and it could be painful as well. Little does he realize that he too will learn about his own life and that it, too, will be painful. and it will be as painful for him.The tension grows with the coming of King to Memphis where he will be assassinated. This is a must read for those who enjoy thought-provoking, suspense-filled mysteries.
In 1968, Memphis is a divided city with racial tension extremely high between the white population led by Mayor Loeb and the black population represented by the sanitation workers. As the workers begin their strike, white woman Laura Hathaway visits odd job specialist Billy 'Smokey' Dalton in his office. She demands that he explain why her mother left him ten thousand dollars in her will. Smokey realizes that her private sleuth failed to find the link and she is fishing, but he does not know why. He fails to recognize his benefactor from her picture that Laura shows him. After an unsatisfied Laura leaves, Smokey thinks back because this is not the first 'gift' the Hathaways have given to him. He is as curious as she is, except his desire to know why goes back to 1960 when he received ten thousand dollars from a lawyer who claimed silence at the direction of his client. Laura appearing in his office has given him his first substantial lead in a quest to learn why he twice was given a substantial amount of cash. Smokey begins his own investigation. A DANGEROUS ROAD is a fabulous historical mystery that brings to life the essence of Memphis during the period that leads to and includes the assassination of Martin Luther King. The story line is very appealing, as Smokey searches for the link with the help of a ten-year old street-wise kid. Except for the fact that this novel will make baby boomers feel old when the realization of how much time has passed, Kris Nelscott provides a winning tale that hopefully leads to more late sixties and seventies novels. Harriet Klausner