Haywood, Gar Anthony 1954–
Gar Anthony Haywood 1954–
Gar Anthony Haywood writes successful crime fiction featuring Los Angeles private investigator Aaron Gunner. Often compared to Walter Mosley or Gary Phillips, other black authors in the genre with devoted followings, Haywood has earned praise for his gritty depictions of Los Angeles and its more dangerous quarters. His plain-talking, wryly observant Gunner has lured legions of fans to the series, and critics often remark on Haywood’s ability to toss a trenchant remark about relevant social topics of the day—politically incorrect or not—into his dialogue. Still, noted Booklist critic Bill Ott, Haywood’s “treatment of these issues never gets in the way of crisp, character-centered storytelling.”
A native of Los Angeles, Haywood was born on May 22, 1954. He read avidly as a child, from comic books to science fiction, and as a young adult took a job as a computer-service technician, which he held for nearly twenty years. His first book, 1987’s Fear of the Dark, served to introduce Gunner and launch Haywood’s career. It also won the St. Martins’ Press/Private Eye Writers of America Best First Private Eye Novel Award. Writing in the New York Times, Stewart Kellerman found some flaws in dialogue and prose in this tale of Gunner’s involvement in a bar slaying with links to the Black Panther movement, but asserted that “Haywood’s wit overcomes much of the awkwardness.” Kellerman also noted that “there’s a nice twist at the end, just when readers may be getting smug.” Haywood followed his award-winning debut with Not Long for This World three years later, in which a do-gooder Los Angeles minister is gunned down in an apparent drive-by shooting. One suspect is nabbed, but the court-appointed defense attorney hires Gunner to find the missing driver.
In the early 1990s Haywood’s career was inadvertently boosted by a chance remark that presidential candidate Bill Clinton made on the campaign trail. Asked what he had been reading lately, Clinton praised Mosley’s Devil in a Blue Dress and A Red Death, and sales for Mosley’s subsequently skyrocketed. In the end, noted Ebony’s Christopher Benson, “Clinton’s endorsement … created new interest in Black mystery, and a demand for new voices that publishers were eager to meet.” Haywood wrote his third novel, You Can Die Trying, in which a much-loathed white police officer is accused of shooting an unarmed black teen. Excoriated in the media, the officer commits suicide, but then a witness comes to Gunner to claim that he saw the teen fire twice at the cop. Multiple plot turns reveal much about all parties involved. “Gunner is a rarity in recent detective fiction: soured, yet utterly believable, tough and resourceful without being cartoonishly overblown,” noted a Publishers Weekly contributor of Haywood’s third novel.
Haywood took a break from the crime scene for a bit to write a lighter detective series featuring a pair of African-American retirees, Joe and Dottie Loudermilk, who travel the United States in their Airstream trailer. “I wanted to do a second series because I didn’t want my
At a Glance…
Born on May 22, 1954, in Los Angeles, CA; married; two daughters.
Career: Computer-maintenance technician, 1970s-1990s; detective fiction writer, 1987–; television script writer, 1998–.
Awards: St. Martins’ Press/Private Eye Writers of America Best First Private Eye Novel Award, 1987, for Fear of the Dark.
Addresses: Office —c/o Gar Anthony Haywood, G. R. Putnam’s Publicity, 375 Hudson St., New York, NY 10014.
character to get stale,” Haywood told American Visions writer Carolyn Tillery. In 1994’s Going Nowhere Fast, Joe, a former police officer and his college-professor wife encounter the youngest and most troubled of their five children, Bad Dog, at the Grand Canyon, who is being tailed by an angry ex-football player. Bad Dog’s nickname fulfills its promise when a dead body turns up in Joe and Dottie’s bathroom, and the Loudermilks piece together the story. Neither that nor a follow-up, Bad News Travels Fast, were as well received by critics as Haywood’s Aaron Gunner mysteries, however.
Haywood brought Gunner back in 1996 with It’s Not a Pretty Sight, in which the Shelby Cobra-driving detective tries to solve the mystery behind his ex-girlfriend’s death. A Booklist review from Thomas Gaughan likened Haywood to other Los Angeles detective fiction writers, among them such stellar names as Mosley, Ross MacDonald, and even Raymond Chandler. “Each of those writers has given us a different Los Angeles,” Gaughan asserted, “and Haywood adds another precinct” with his series. The plot of his next work, When Last Seen Alive, concerns two women—one who hires Gunner to find her brother, who never came back from the Million Man March in Washington, D.C., and the other the wife of a local politician who is determined to catch her husband’s infidelities on camera. The job draws Gunner into a web that involves the Federal Bureau of Investigation as well as operatives from a black extremist group called Defenders of the Bloodline. “Deaths accumulate and then coalesce into a pattern as Haywood continues to deepen this impressive series,” noted a Publishers Weekly contributor in its review of the book.
Critics often remarked on what an appealing character Gunner was, and in an interview that appeared on the MysteryOne website, Haywood conceded that it was a form of alter-ego writing for him. “Internally, my characters are very much reflections of myself,” he reflected. “They tend to be stronger willed, though. And I think it would be more accurate to say that I regularly have them do things I [could] never do.” He has also said that his motivation for creating Gunner was to portray “an African-American character—someone realistic, with human frailties, who wasn’t a superhero or too good to be true,” as he told Tillery in the American Visions interview.
For his sixth Gunner mystery, Haywood earned a slew of positive critical reviews. All the Lucky Ones Are Dead, which appeared in 2000, opened with the suicide of a major gangsta rap star, C.E. Digga Jones. His father believes it was a murder, and hires Gunner to find his son’s killer. But Gunner, his business struggling, must also take a second job as bodyguard to a conservative talk-show host, Sparkle Johnson, whom he loathes. Once again, his job entangles him with the violent Defenders of the Bloodline group. “What is impressive,” maintained Black Issues Book Review critic Shaun Neblett of this plot, “is that Haywood merges two significant story lines together through one character,” with Gunner learning “what strange bonds can unite people.” Publishers Weekly also commended Haywood’s characterization, noting that “Gunner’s savvy intelligence makes it a pleasure to follow the PI through a maze of betrayals and greed.” A Houston Chronicle journalist, Amy Rabinovitz, declared that “most authors couldn’t even say ‘gangsta rapper’ without sounding a little ridiculous. Maybe Haywood can’t say it either, but he certainly can deliver in print.”
Haywood has also worked in television. He adapted the Dennis Rodman autobiography, As Bad As I Wanna Be, for a 1998 television movie, and has written episodes of New York Undercover and The District. On writing for television versus writing fiction, Haywood asserted “there is absolutely no comparison,” he said in a MysteryOne interview. “With very few exceptions, what I want goes in a novel, while writing a television episode is work-for-hire, there is absolutely nothing about the work I have any real control over. So your expectations are different before you ever put your first word on the page, and I think those expectation affect what you write, and how you write it.”
For his 2002 thriller Man Eater, Haywood took the pen name Ray Shannon to distance himself from his Aaron Gunner series. As he told Publishers Weekly interviewer Adam Dunn, he did so in part because “there were some misconceptions about who I am and what I’m capable of in my writing that I wanted to address.” The new work featured a likable female protagonist, a Hollywood production-company executive named Ronnie Deal, who finds herself the target of a hit man and must team with an ex-convict with a script he’s trying to plug in order to extricate herself. “Ronnie and Ellis become an effective, if unlikely, team as they fight for their lives and careers,” noted Craig Shufelt in a Library Journal assessment. Booklist’s Keir Graff found the plot an intricate one, and claimed that “Shannon sets a lot of flaming balls in motion, but he doesn’t drop any.”
Not surprisingly, Haywood was characteristically forthright about Man Eater’s cynical take on just what it took to get a script into production in Hollywood. “In all my writing, I generally have one ax or another to grind,” he told WWD. “Up to this point, I’ve been fairly subtle in grinding it.” That book earned comparisons with the fast-paced, darkly comic crime novels of Elmore Leonard—comparisons that were echoed upon publication of the second Ronnie Deal book, Firecracker, in 2004. Deal is now a rising entertainment-industry executive who becomes pregnant by a famous pro football player. Spurning the cash payoff his camp offers her to avoid a paternity suit, she lands in trouble with a Super Bowl betting slip that the Dallas Cowboys tight end gave her in an attempt to woo her one night—a revelation that would end his lucrative pro career forever. “Everything comes to a head in Las Vegas on Super Bowl Sunday, and there’s loads of action and double-crossing,” noted a Publishers Weekly reviewer, who also found “the pace is fast and the plot suitably outrageous.”
Haywood doesn’t mind the comparisons to Leonard, as he told Dunn in Publishers Weekly. “I’ve read quite a bit of his work, and I feel that he’s the inventor, so to speak, at least the modern inventor, of the modern serial comic ensemble crime novel.” Haywood is married, and lives with his wife and two daughters in the Silverlake area of Los Angeles. Initially, he said, his daughters were impressed with his career move from the computer industry to authorship. “At first they thought my writing books was pretty exciting,” he told Tillery in American Visions. “But now it’s no big deal.”
“Aaron Gunner Mystery” series
Fear of the Dark, St. Martin’s Press, 1987.
Not Long for This World, St. Martin’s Press, 1990.
You Can Die Trying, St. Martin’s Press, 1993.
It’s Not a Pretty Sight, Putnam, 1996.
When Last Seen Alive, Putnam, 1997.
All the Lucky Ones Are Dead, Putnam, 2000.
Going Nowhere Fast, Putnam, 1994.
Bad News Travels Fast, Putnam, 1995.
(Under pseudonym Ray Shannon) Man Eater, Putnam, 2003.
(Under pseudonym Ray Shannon) Firecracker, Putnam, 2004.
American Visions, April-May 1997, p. 18.
Black Issues Book Review, July 2000, p. 23.
Booklist, September 1, 1996, p. 56; December 15, 1999, p. 759; January 1, 2003, p. 856.
Ebony, September 2003, p. 110.
Entertainment Weekly, November 8, 1996, p. 63.
Houston Chronicle, April 2, 2000, p. 18.
Library Journal, January 1998, p. 148; January 2003, p. 159.
New York Times, October 9, 1988, p. BR39.
People, April 3, 2000, p. 53.
Publishers Weekly, April 27, 1990, p. 55; May 10, 1993, p. 55; June 27, 1994, p. 59; June 12, 1995, p. 51; July 15, 1996, p. 58; December 1, 1997, p. 48; December 6, 1999, p. 56; December 2, 2002, p. 32; December 15, 2003, p.52.
WWD, January 21, 2003, p. 24.
“Interview with Gar Anthony Haywood a.k.a. Ray Shannon,” MysteryOne, www.mysteryone.com/GarHaywoodInterview.htm (January 5, 2003).
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