The Blind Alley



Grace Edwards is an accomplished writer who grew up in Harlem and wrote many novels about life there. Her writing days are over now, and she lives in poor health with her daughter Perri on Lincoln Place; however, she has created a marvelous legacy. I have read over several of her novels including some with the detective Mali Anderson, and they are well worth reading. Of the ones I have read, the best is “Blind Alley” the last book Edwards published. In it she uses a technique she employs in other books, which is to have a fixed almost geometric structure and then have the action pass through it, disrupting the structure in the action's disorderly development. For example in the detective story “Do or Die” Mali Anderson has to interview prostitutes of a murdered pimp, each one named after a day of the week. If this seems a bit contrived, in “Blind Alley” the structure is a tenement and right at the start we are given a list of characters and which apartments they live in. Into this orderly structure comes Rhino Brown, a convicted murderer filled with angry hatred intent on extracting revenge. The structure does give the novel order, but that order turns out to remarkably fragile and vulnerable.

It is not just the killer who brings out the weakness underlying the characters' lives. There is the political background. The McCarthy hearings are on the television and there is talk of the riot in Peekskill where Paul Robeson was prevented from singing by a dangerous mob. There are many other factors as well. The time is August 1954 and everyone is suffering from the heat; people feel sweaty and uncomfortable, and it is hard to sleep. The characters are all tired and on edge, and a lot the action takes place at night. Also there are pervasive social problems, none of which seem dated – poverty, racial injustice, lack of police protection. In this milieu there are all kinds of striving, a young woman wishes to be a success as a singer even though her lover and promoter was murdered, young people search for love even as their parents object, older characters also want a second chance at love. In one case a woman discovers after her husband's death that he was homosexual, that her life was a lie. People have problems with emigration – one family thinks of moving to avoid any encounter with the authorities. A grandmother is torn between her love for her grandson and the knowledge that he is an untamable monster.

Edwards employs a shifting point of view which makes for an interesting and multifaceted book. We see the world through the eyes of the characters and we also see all the characters through the eyes of others. Thus we find out that Rose Jordan, the talented young singer, is trying to get her life back on track after her biggest supporter and promoter Tommy was murdered. She is talented and is looking for her big break but is unsure of herself and is easily thrown off her game. Many people support her, her Uncle Cyrus, the owner of the Blind Alley, Blue Williams, but to others she is a slut trading on her good looks and to Rhino, she is an obsessive object of desire that he must have and destroy. She is that “Damn bitch. Wasn't for her, none of this would have happened.” Everyone is under pressure, and the temperature is raised to the boiling point by the return of Rhino. Yet, he too gets the author's sympathy. In reviewing his life, we come to understand how this terrible man was created by neglect and abuse. He is nearly blind, covered with scars, always jumpy as he awaits the next dose of punishment. All he can think of is revenge against those who have what he lacks.

The story is told by someone who knows Harlem in detail and is a brilliant observer. On the first page we read about the defective light at the Peacock Bar and Grill; “One of the feathers in the plume lit out of sequence, stayed brighter longer and seemed to turn off when it felt like it.” There is a system but it doesn't quite work – this is the overall theme of the book, but it is embedded in lots of marvelously developed detail. The Blind Alley is not only the book but a nightclub that is not quite legitimate; its main features are drink and music – both ways of forgetting the grimness of everyday life. It is most crowded at 3am, after hours. When the killer Rhino appears there, he breaks up the music and dancing, and even though Blue threatens him into leaving, the atmosphere is ruined and everyone goes home. And that condition continues throughout the book until the climax, in which the nearly blind Rhino is made completely blind by having a light shown in his eyes. Removed from the real world, he moves into a mythic one in which he is leaving the mother who left him at birth; “Me! I'm leavin' you. Now see how you like it! See how you like it, Ma!”

“Blind Alley” shows the world out of joint, it captures Harlem beautifully, and it depicts the immediate inflamed problem resolved and peace returned with the killer laid to rest, Rose a success at her debut, and love resulting in marriage, but it is clear that the underlying problems will persist. Indeed, as we said before, there is nothing dated about this book.

- John DeWind

Jonathan Judge