Book review: Clarence Cooper Jr’s The Scene

San Francisco based crime writer Domenic Stansberry recently sent me a copy of a book he has just put out through his very cool looking small publisher, Molotov Editions. The book is a re-released edition ofThe Syndicate by a little known Black crime writer, Clarence Cooper Jr.

I hope to write about the Molotov Editions reprint of The Syndicate, the cover of which is included below, in a future post. For now, however, I want to talk about the Cooper novel I have read, The Scene, also published in 1960. And if The Scene is any guide I am pretty sure I will dig The Syndicate.

The book set in a nameless US city, and deals with the bleak, dead end lives of the junkies, prostitutes and criminals who populate an area of it, known as ‘the Scene’.

A myriad of characters shift in and out of the story: there’s Rudy Black, a ruthless, showy pimp and up and coming pusher, part of a network of dealers working for a mysterious criminal called ‘the Man’, who controls the flow of narcotics in the Scene: Black Bertha, who also deals to support her and her daughters but doesn’t use herself; and Miss Dalton, the Man’s loyal secretary.

The novel also focuses on two cops. Virgil Patterson is an ambitious Black cop recently promoted to the narcotics division responsible for the Scene. His partner, Mance Davis, is a cynical white police veteran, who takes it upon himself, much to Patterson’s ire, to teach his new partner about the Scene, as part of the city administration’s effort to clean up the area for good.

Drugs dominate The Scene, how to get money to buy drugs, where to source them, how to avoid being ripped off once you have them, how to get the paraphernalia to shoot up, where to shoot up and how to avoid ‘the Rollers’, as police are referred to by the Scene’s denizens. As Rudy thinks to himself at one point:

His life was crammed into a moment. There were no days in his junkie’s world. There were only moments to cop and moments to use and moments to nod and cop again.

The only thing worse than having no drugs, is when there are no drugs to be had, a situation referred to with dread by the inhabitants of the Scene as ‘the Panic’.

The novel is unrelentingly bleak. While the Scene gives some of those living in it freedom to exist as they want, take drugs and evade persecution by white authorities like the police, these pleasures, such as they are, are incredibly fleeting. Day to day life, for the most part, is a struggle to survive in which everything is for sale and no one can be trusted. The characters exist in dingy bars, alleys and run down tenement buildings, desperate and hopeless, caring only about their next fix or criminal scam. Cops like Mance and Patterson obviously have the upper hand in the power relationship, but in much the same way prison guards are impacted by sharing the same space as prisoners, they are part of the Scene’s ecosystem and can’t help but get drawn into its violence and sleaze.

Clarence Cooper Jr

According to the introduction to my Payback Press edition of The Scene, Detroit born Cooper developed a drug habit, did a two-year stretch in prison, wrote two novels, The Scene and The Syndicate, also published in 1960 but considered so hard hitting it appeared under a pseudonymand contributed to and edited the black daily newspaper The Chicago Messenger all before his 27th birthday.

The Scene was first published by Crown Books, a division of the reputable Random House publishing group and was well received by critics. One reviewer likened it to Nelson Algren’s The Man With the Golden Arm (1949), about a card dealer’s battle with drug use in Chicago after the war. Cooper’s hard-boiled staccato prose matches the subject matter in The Scene. His depiction of the drug culture feels vivid and authentic, no doubt due to his own familiarity with narcotics.

Cooper’s style is unusual for the beginning of the 1960s. As the foreword to the Payback Press edition puts it, the book is not quite crime fiction, not quite literature. The Scene is more in tune with the more militant state of US race relations later in the decade when black neighbourhoods rioted in large cities across the country.

Cooper didn’t see the positive reviews of The Scene as he was in prison when it came out. He wrote further novels, the last of which, The Farm (1966), was set in the Lexington, Kentucky, prison for drug addicts, sometimes referred to as the ‘Narcotics Farm’. All these books saw publication by cheap pulp fiction outfits; none achieved the critical success of The Scene. He grew more embittered, which only worsened his drug use. He died, alone, homeless and broke, of a drug overdose in New York in 1978.

If you are interested in picking up a copy of the Molotov Editions re-release of Clarence Cooper Jr’s book, The Syndicate, it can be found at the publisher’s website here. It is also available on Amazon here. I believe an e-book is the works.


3 Responses

  1. This was a wonderful review of one of my favorite books from that era. I discovered The Scene in the ’90s when Old Books reprinted a number of his novels. If I’m not mistaken, The Scene was edited by Harlan Ellison when he worked at Regency Books. In New York City, there used to be a YMCA on 23rd Street off of 7th Avenue, across the street from the Hotel Chelsea. Men also lived there and that was where Cooper died. When I lived a block away in the ’90s, I would think Cooper’s last days in that neighborhood: did he have any friends? was he still writing? did he know any of the other literary junkies who were living across the street? Anyway, kudos to Molotov Editions for bring Cooper back for a new generation to appreciate. Also, big-up Gary Phillips for the afterward afterword.

    • Michael,
      Thanks for stopping by with such interesting comments. I had no idea Ellison had a connection to The Scene. His fingerprints are on so much 1960s pulp culture.

  2. Yes, Ellison was everywhere. Also, the reprint line was Old School Books, which were edited by Marc Gerald in the mid-’90s.

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