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The Blind Alley

by Grace Edwards

iUniverse | 212 pages | $14.95

Reviewed by Herb Boyd

Anticipating the ways Grace Edwards will evoke Harlem is one thing her fans relish from her novels, particularly those denizens of the storied community.  But even for those who don’t reside there, Edwards knows how to seduce her readers and to make Harlem and its various neighborhoods seem almost like other characters.           

Five years ago, in her book The Viaduct, Edwards offered this image of the famous jazz joint, Minton’s.  One of her main characters remembered sitting at the bar when Thelonious Monk strolled in after his gig at the Five Spot in downtown Manhattan.  “She watched him lean over the keys, close his eyes, and run his fingers down the chords,” Edwards wrote. “The other musicians struck up but Monk played as if he were alone in the place, listening to notes that only he seemed to hear.  There were solos and duets and the crowd sat spellbound till dawn.  It was hard getting to work the next morning, but it was the best night out she ever remembered.”

Edwards may have had Minton’s in mind when she envisioned The Blind Alley, an afterhours spot located in a Harlem basement.  Certainly, there are her standard musical references, all of which certify her jazz bona fides, and two of the book’s main characters are musicians, a father and a son.  

Even more important than The Blind Alley, where patrons are asked to check their artillery and attitudes at the door, is a tenement where seven families live in fear and trepidation, on pins and needles when Rhino arrives from prison with revenge on his mind.

Shifting her story from character to character, from apartment to apartment, Edwards weaves her narrative in and around the dangerous Rhino, who has a score to settle with each one of the residents where his grandmother lives, and where he returns to terrify.

The suspense is tightly wrought and you wonder who will be Rhino’s first victim.  

“I know of that young man,” said a woman who reads tea leaves, speaking of Rhino to one of the residents. “He’s lost and angry and looking for something he will never find in his present state.  He is carrying an old injury and he will violate everyone and everything in his path.  In the end, it is this anger that will undo him.  Right now, he is the one running and hiding.  There is no need for you to do so.”

Rose, the girlfriend of the man Rhino killed, is both the main target and Rhino’s obsession. 

Still, there are others on his hit list and we get to know them as they interrelate with each other in the tenement and nervously await Rhino’s next move.   Once they are collectively alarmed, they realize they can’t just sit passively and let Rhino take them off one by one.   To this end, each separately prepares his or her own way of resistance or retaliation.

There is a touch of Hitchcock at play here as the residents are bonded by their fear and ready to take a stand against “the stranger who comes to wreak havoc on a town,” so to speak. 

As is her wont, Edwards uses several devices to indicate the time period in which the story takes place.  Even if she didn’t reveal it was 1954, the reference to Brown v. the Board of Education would have been a dead giveaway.   The McCarthy hearings on Un-American activities were another event that marked the era.

Then, there are her clever turns of phrases, her way of playing with words as she does so delightfully with “heresy” and “hear-say.”  There is a series of great lines as when Rose wishes that her boyfriend could take a picture of her feelings. And when a young person, seeking to define “double pneumonia,” believes it was just an American way of naming things twice like “New York, New York.”

Edwards’ tendency to drop pearls of history is strewn throughout the book, never to the point of distraction, but rather to embellish a moment, to expand a thought or image.

Sometimes this is done not to her best advantage as in her mistakes on Redd Foxx and Sarah Vaughan’s names.   There are a number of typos, and the book could have used a good proof-reader and copy editor, but given the diminishing editorial support in the publishing industry—and there is even more vulnerability in self-publishing—such miscues are not surprising. 

Thankfully, they are minor irritants in this engrossing odyssey. 

     The Blind Alley is a fast-paced, smoothly conveyed story with a rather anticipated ending, not at all unlike her often poetic renderings of her beloved Harlem.

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