Gary Phillips was born and raised in Los Angeles many moons ago, the son of a mechanic and a librarian. Early on he was influenced by the works of Arthur Conan Doyle, Dashiell Hamett, Richard Wright, Rod Serling, comic book artists Jack Kirby and Jim Aparo, Zora Neale Hurston, Donald Goines and Lester Dent. He has fad a variety of jobs from state director of a political action committee to delivering dog cages. These experiences and his early exposure to the aforementioned writers informs his numerous tales of malfeasance and chicanery.
In addition to writing the novels listed below, Gary was editor of PM Press’ noir imprint Switchblade with Andrea Gibbons, is currently the fiction editor of Fourstory.org, and the author of numerous short stories and graphic novels.
Books by Gary Phillips:
The explosion of wealth and development in downtown L.A. is a thing of wonder. But regardless of how big and shiny our buildings get, we should not forget the ones this wealth and development has overlooked and pushed out. This is the context for Phillips’ novella The Underbelly, as a semi-homeless Vietnam vet named Magrady searches for a wheelchair-bound friend gone missing from Skid Row–a friend who might be working a dangerous scheme against major players. Magrady’s journey is a solo sortie where the flashback-prone protagonist must deal with the impact of gentrification; take-no-prisoners community organizers; an unflinching cop from his past in Vietnam; an elderly sexpot out for his bones; a lusted-after magical skull; chronic-lovin’ knuckleheads; and the perils of chili cheese fries at midnight. Combining action, humor and a street level gritty POV, The Underbelly is illustrated with photos and drawings.
Here’s a podcast of Gary reading from the Underbelly at Skylight Books in L.A.
“Magrady’s adventures, with a distinctive noir feeling and appreciation for comic books, started as an online, serialized mystery. Drawings and an interview with Phillips enhance the package, offering a compelling perspective on race and class issues in South Central L.A.”
— Vanessa Bush, Booklist
World War II was an event that changed the landscape of the world and the heart of America. As the war rages across Europe and Africa, a battle is also being fought on American soil. Eager to join the fight, black soldiers are denied the right to defend their country. One man is charged with a duty that could change the course of the war in Africa. On a spy mission he must find a traitor. But as he gets closer, he finds he must choose between obligation to his country and duty to his race. A woman reporter finds a deep buried secret that could shock the nation. As she digs deeper into the national conspiracy, she finds her life in jeopardy. She must choose between telling the truth and saving her life. A patriotic lounge singer gives up his career to serve his country. To do so, he must hide his identity. In the heat of battle, he must make a choice between the man he thought he was and the man he truly is. A group of courageous people defy the odds and fight the war of their conscience to keep themselves and their country safe.
Zelmont Raines was once a Super Bowl-winning wide receiver. But recurring injuries, a self-destructive lifestyleand too many run-ins with the law have submarined his career. Back in L.A. after bombing out of the European League, his one last chance is the expansion team in town, the Barons. Unfortunately for Zelmont, the roar of the crowds and the adulation of the fans-not to mention the money and the honeys that go with it-are no longer his for the taking. Bumped, the bitter athlete falls in with Wilma Wells, the smart (and fine) lawyer for the Barons. She’s got ideas Zelmont likes…and not just in the bedroom. Soon he and his friend, the switch-hitting ex-pro defensive tackle Napoleon Graham, throw in with Wells to rip off the mobbed-up owner of the Barons. It’s only then that Zelmont discovers that no matter how fast he can jook, no matter how tough he can fake, trouble is closing in on him way too fast. Mix elements of Jim Thompson with the street-smart verve of Donald Goines, add a couple of dashes of the compact delivery of Richard Stark, and you get The Jook: a crime novel where football and venal ambitions collide in the end zone.
“There’s only one word for Gary Phillips’ The Jook and that word is fucking cool (you had to believe the Nerd would spice up said word with some Grade-A poop-mouth, am I right?). This fucking beast is just oozing with cool. I haven’t read any other shit from Gary Phillips yet, but if his other books are half as cool as The Jook, you can bet the fucking farm the Nerd’s gonna be on top of that shit toot-sweet.”
— The Nerd of Noir on BSCReview.com
On The Streets Of L.A. Us against them. That’s the law of the cop world. In L.A.’s toughest ‘hoods, you gotta bang with the best of the roughnecks. And the best are the five members of TRASH, an elite team of street cops unafraid to go up against the city’s worst gangbangers, even if it means bending the rules, planting a piece, or looking the other way for a fellow cop.
The crime-infested Venice Heights section is a place Detective Sergeant Rafael “Saint” Santian understands. It’s where he grew up, and part of him never left. But the situation is getting out of control. One of the most lethal gangs is making moves, while a politically ambitious assistant D.A. is looking to snare Saint and his men. Meanwhile hidden hands are lighting a torch that will bring up the heat, turning cop against cop as the line gets blurred between gangsta and law enforcer in a city where everyone’s riding on the edge…
“Rafael “Saint” Santián and his elite team of cops take on gangstas and an ambitious female district attorney running for mayor in Phillips’s gritty and violent tour of the underbelly of Los Angeles. The TRASH unit — Tactical Resources Against Street Hoodlums — really is a gang itself, as deadly as anyone else on the street.
“When they bent the rules it was because the rules were hamstringing them from achieving the greater goal. Yeah, they copped some extras for themselves, but who didn’t? It was drug money, whore money, laundered money.” The main plot is standard B-movie material, merely a neat frame for a series of engaging set pieces, but the subplots allow Phillips to show that he knows his turf and its wars.
Pulling a large cast from all layers of society, from bangers with the Crazy Nines to bikers wearing the Viking colors and hip-hop execs at Def Ritmo Records, he smoothly follows one character or another, whether Saint or the biker Red Dog or the Korean-American assistant D.A. shacking with Red Dog’s mama. Saint even cruises down to Tijuana for some additional fun-and-gun action. As in his Las Vegas-based Martha Chainey mysteries (High Hand, etc.), Phillips doesn’t worry much about loose ends, but keeps all the clips loaded. A trademark cliffhanger of an ending suggests that Saint and his crew may be series bound.”
Implacable expediter Marley has a rep for getting goods from here to there, no questions asked. So when a call from the truly fine and truly rich Colombian drug queen Lina Guzmÿn reaches him, he gets busy—she needs to get from Tijuana to Sacramento in less than 24 hours—’Cause there’s a phat million waiting for him if he delivers her in one piece.
But the conniving Samson Twelvetrees, Lina’s once trusted lieutenant, has guessed our girl’s play; she’s looking to go legit and sell out the organization to Dakin Saunders, California’s law-and-order, gubernatorial hopeful Attorney General. And that’s a move Twelvetrees will keep from going down at all costs.
From goth creepshow rejects to pop glam killers to Twelvetrees’s private army of stone gangsters, Marley and Lina are beset by assassins looking to earn some serious bounty for their deaths. Battling damn near every step they take, the frenzied chase takes the pair through parts of California not found in the Triple A guidebook.
And if that weren’t enough trouble for Marley, the hot-headed Lina, a woman used to having her way, especially with men, keeps throwing big drama, messing up his carefully constructed plans. But his rep, not to mention his ass, are on the line, and Marley is going to get the job done—no matter how many of The Perpetrators stand in his way.
“This book opens with a knife fight, which is a really great lead into the gunfight that follows. This is very typical of the pacing in this book. It screams Quentin Tarantino. It’s like Desperado meets the original Shaft. From beginning to end it’s “Wham Bam Thank You Ma’am”. Marley is the ultimate bad ass…”
— Jon Jordon on Mystery One Bookstore site
In the wake of the Rodney King beating and the subsequent riots, Los Angeles is a racial tinderbox. When the body of a murdered Korean shop owner is discovered during the groundbreaking ceremony of what’s intended to be part of the city’s healing process, private eye Ivan Monk gets involved in the case. Given the atmosphere, everyone assumes a racial motive, but as Monk probes ever deeper into the case, greed rears its omnipresent head. Monk meets resistance from the Korean Merchants Association, the FBI, the LAPD, and an assortment of street gangs. As a hard-boiled mystery, this is routine. As an examination of L.A.’s racial strife, it’s really quite enlightening. So many of the ethnic groups outside the power structure are interdependent, yet they resent the others’ presence. Banding together would provide strength, but it’s to the empowered’s advantage to keep the groups squabbling among themselves. This is the milieu in which Monk works. Depending upon whom he is questioning, he’s perceived as either an Uncle Tom or a troublemaking black agitator. But he perseveres to a bloody conclusion in which the only color that really matters is the green of cold, hard cash. (Wes Lukowsky, Booklist)
Ivan Monk, the sizzling fuse of a private detective created by Gary Phillips in Violent Spring and relit in this second book in the series, could well be the angry son of Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins. Where Easy was reluctantly drawn into racially inspired conflicts and killings in the 1940s through the 1960s, Ivan goes out of his way to take on cases that are politically dangerous in the modern world. Here, the seemingly unrelated murders of three young black men in a Southern California working-class city very much like Long Beach send Monk off on a journey to a blue-collar Oregon town where white supremacists are hatching poisonous plans. Phillips’s writing might not be as smooth or as graceful as Mosley’s, but his energy level and social conscience are every bit as impressive.
— Amazon.com review
Bad Night is Falling
A hot summer in L.A and the heat is building in the Rancho Tajuata Housing Projects. Racial tension and gang violence spiral out of control when three members of a Latino family, including a little girl, are killed by a firebombing – the suspected killers are said to be black. The pressure is on to solve the case quickly and Ivan Monk is called in to track down the murderers, but in doing so he delves into the tangled history of the Watts riots, revealing layers of corruption and racism. Monk finds himself at odds with the police, disillusioned with his mentor and under indictment for murder. Now Monk must race before time runs out and a bad night falls on the projects…this time for good.
Only The Wicked
Doughnut shop owner and private investigator Ivan Monk lands in the middle of a mystery when a friend of a friend, former Southern League of Negro Nationals basketball great Kennesaw Riles, is found murdered in a local barber shop. Just before his death, Riles made cryptic references to a legendary blues recording, “Killin’ Blues.” This is the first in a trail of clues that leads Monk to the Mississippi Delta, where he uncovers a 40-year-old conspiracy to frame a civil rights leader — a conspiracy that led to an innocent man’s conviction.
“Phillips is on a roll…Chainey is tough, sexy, smart, and thoroughly charismatic–sort of a Pam Grier for the new millennium. Phillips effectively uses the cartoon appeal of the best blaxploitation flicks but overlays it with three-dimensional characters living in an all-too-real world. There’s also some fascinating historical material about black Las Vegas in the ’50s and ’60s. A fine debut in the hip, hard-boiled tradition.”
— Bill Ott, Booklist
In Las Vegas, mob courier, African-American Martha Chainey watches the heavyweight championship-boxing match between Joaquin Muhammed and Tyler Jeffries. When Joaquin throws a phantom jab reminiscent of Lewiston, the champ goes down. The surprised referee starts the count only to quickly realize that someone shot and murdered Tyler.
Riverhead Casino owner Victoria DeGault hires Chainey to find the missing five million dollars in bets that she was holding that was stolen while the champ was killed. Chainey begins making inquiries on the Strip and soon finds friend and under card winner Moya Reese dead too. Though she stands to make $250,000 if she finds the missing cash, the investigation is now personal.
“The second Chainey tale (see COLD HAND) is a delightful action-packed novel that goes the full fifteen rounds with plenty excitement throughout the tale. The story line moves faster than the speed of Leonard and the punch of Foreman. Chainey is quite a character as she nukes laws when she wants to accomplish something, especially if money is involved. Along with Chainey and a strong secondary cast, the who-done-it and why of SHOOTER’S POINT showcase Gary Phillips (see the Monk novels) ability to tell a knockout of a story. “
– Harriet Klausner
Citizen Kang was a serialized, online political novella about progressive Congresswoman Cynthia Kang from Monterey Park that unfolded in real time parallel to our quixotic political arena circa 2007-08 on thenation.com website. The serial included reverberations from our then ongoing presidential campaigns. Writing CK was an update to an old model as writers such as Charles Dickens and Mark Twain wrote in the installment form in newspapers and magazines a century or so ago. Congresswoman Kang dealt with her personal and political fortunes, while murder and chicanery abounded. Check out archived installments.