Paul D. Marks is a multiple award-winning author whose latest novel, “The Blues Don’t Care,” is a striking illustration of the talent that has brought him those awards. It’s the first entry in what promises to be an entertaining and thoughtful series of “Bobby Saxon Novels” — mysteries with not only the requisite twists, turns, surprises, and reveals, but also a penetrating look into our ubiquitous all-too-human flaws — greed, corruption, fear of the “other,” and, especially, racism.
The novel is set in World War II era Los Angeles. The protagonist is a troubled, supremely talented, extraordinarily intelligent mixed-up and messed-up young man named Bobby Saxon. Bobby wants more than anything in the world to be a jazz pianist in a ’40s-era big swing band. He gets that opportunity when he visits and “sits in” with an excellent band led by one Booker “Boom Boom” Taylor. The band is a perfect representation of the de facto segregation of the era. It’s a “colored” band. And if Bobby is ever going to be accepted into the group, he must quickly prove his musical bona fides. He is invited to play a gig with the band on a big boat with a huge ballroom. Though the band is a product of segregation, the boat’s parties are frequented by wealthy people both black and white. On a break, he overhears a loud argument between a very outspoken and embittered band member named James Christmas and a rich-looking white man, Hans Dietrich. Dietrich’s side of the confrontation seems to indicate that he is a practiced Nazi propagandist, and the target of his hateful wrath is James. Mutual hatred and the inevitable physical confrontation ensue. Hours later, Dietrich is discovered hanging from the rafters. He has been lynched. James goes to prison.
Booker thinks James is innocent, but he can’t investigate the crime himself because he is black. A white police force would have nothing to do with him and would remain perfectly content with James’ conviction without regard to the question of his guilt or innocence. So Booker recruits Bobby to investigate the murder and declares that if Bobby can somehow clear James, he will be the band’s pianist. Bobby can’t resist the offer even though he is a weak, skinny kid, totally ignorant of all things crime-related.
So the plot and the mystery unfold as Bobby searches for the real murderer. But the author’s surprises start early and hit hard. About a fifth of the way through the novel, we make a shocking discovery which I, for one, never saw coming — even though Marks had given us several hints which I completely overlooked: Bobby Saxon is actually Bobbie (Roberta) Saxon, a woman who has spent her life wishing she could be a man.
The novel, then, is a fascinating exploration of the cultural and social realities — fear, anger, and bigotry — that characterized wartime Los Angeles. In that world, black people, even black stars and celebrities, were second- or third- or thousandth-class semi-citizens. Gender identification issues were essentially ignored, primarily because people hurting with those problems rarely dared to come out. And in “The Blues Don’t Care,” man/woman Bobby/Bobbie Saxon is smack-dab in the middle of it all, learning the hard way the hard-core issues that characterized and plagued American life and American lives in the 1940s and are, to say the least, still plaguing us in the 2020s. Bobby Saxon suffers through those kinds of indignities and dangers as he investigates the imprisonment of an innocent black man. The young man faces life-threatening situations and enemies wherever he goes, all the while trying desperately to figure out exactly who and what he is and literally what kind of person he will be.
“The Blues Don’t Care” is an historical fiction noir-ish mystery novel that delves deeply into the realities of a terrible time in America. Those realities quite obviously plague us just as fiercely today; and we would do well to finally face them head-on and, once and for all, deal with them, this time with the seriousness they demand. As the pictures Marks paints in this novel suggest, we simply can no longer afford the ugly twin luxuries of complicity and apathy.
Review by Jack Kramer.
This review was first posted on Bookreporter.com.