Ernest Tidyman, Shaft (Bantam, 1971)
[originally posted 12Jun2000]
Hollywood pounced on Ernest Tidyman’s afro-sporting overly brutal private eye, releasing the film of Shaft in the same year as the novel upon which it is based. Not surprisingly for a 1971 film, it’s toned down. John Shaft is a tough-talking twenty-nine-year-old tightly-wrapped mass of violence waiting to explode. He is hired by Harlem narcotics boss Knocks Persons to retrieve Persons’ kidnapped daughter. To that end, Shaft recruits his childhood friend, Black Panther-styled activist Ben Buford. Buford’s militia, Persons’ money, and Shaft—the man behind it all—are up against the Mafia, who let the drug trade in Harlem go, assuming a number of smaller operators would pick it up. Now that it’s centralized, they want it back, and they’ve taken Persons’ nineteen-year-old daughter as a method of persuasion.
Tidyman’s writing isn’t up to that of the true genre classics, but it’s easily on a par with those on the second level of good, hard-boiled PI writing, such as Spillane or Thompson. And while some of the cultural references are dated (it was the seventies in New York, whaddya want?), the main storyline and crisp, bloody writing holds up exceptionally well after almost thirty years. Take the ride, it’s a good one. *** ½