There Goes the Neighborhood: Donald Goines’ Death List

Death List-GoinesPicking up with the finale of Crime Partners, Donald Goines’ second novel in the Kenyatta series focuses in on some of the bigger players in the previous book and picks up some of the threads left hanging in that book.

This time around, series character Kenyatta gets to strut around on center stage. He is a man with a plan, cleaning out the ghetto of racist cops and white dope pushers. He has an army of men and women, trained killers all, who believe in his mission:

Each and every one of them were trained killers, the women as well as the men. There was not a person inside the building who wouldn’t kill a white or even a black person if Kenyatta so ordered it. They were all assassins, trained in the art of death. (69)

Crime Partners showed us how quick he is to move on the cop angle, when he executes a plan for his people to gun said cop down. This book zeroes in more on the second part of his plan. Kenyatta’s efforts are less about crushing the street corner salesmen than in eradicating the white fat cats who pull their strings and serve as the dope pipeline.

To do away with the white drug sources, he needs to identify them. Kenyatta has a snitch who is ready to supply a list of the big names of the big men responsible for pushing the dope into Detroit if he can get ten thousand dollars to pay for it, as he explains to his number one guy:

“Man, all these mothers on the list are big, and do I mean big. They are the bastards that supply the dope to the whole damn city, Ali. They ain’t just neighborhood pushers, man. They’re what you would call international dope men. Just about every name on the list will be a whitey, baby, so you can imagine the kind of dough they should have around their pads.” (22-23)

The list is about more than justice, then. It will pay for itself several times over, Kenyatta believes, since the men on it will just have money lying around their estates. This is a pipedream, of course. The men might have money, but it is more likely they have it tied up in other things or safely locked away (like the dentists and doctors who fund Parker, in the Richard Stark heist stories) than simply lying around out in the open.

Before he can reap the benefits, Kenyatta has to get the list. Before he can get the list, Kenyatta has to get money. Lots of it. Kenyatta needs his people to pull a solid, high yield score.

In Crime Partners, he got wind of a lucrative robbery opportunity involving a Food Stamp Collection Agency. Although the brothers who wanted to invite him in on their scheme got themselves written out of the story with shotguns at this point, Kenyatta moves forward nevertheless. One of the lengthier opening chapters recounts that job beat by brutal beat. It is a success for Kenyatta as well as a major bloodbath—the second in the novel, it turns out. Once it is complete, Kenyatta gets the cash he needs to move forward with his plans. Of course, no one has it easy in Goines’ novels.

More so than in the first volume in this series, Death List turns out to be an ensemble piece. Black and white detective team Benson and Ryan are on the case, digging into Kenyatta’s business. Thanks to some informants, some hard work, and some luck, they are steadily closing in on Kenyatta. Meanwhile, the black gangster called Kingfisher is trying to identify who is attacking the mob. He might not be white or one of the fat cats that lives outside of Detroit yet pulls strings within the city, but he is still part of the problem Kenyatta wants removed. When one of Kenyatta’s best assassins slaughters Kingfisher’s second in command in a surprisingly savage way as a message, Kingfisher brings as much of his weight to bear on identifying and taking care of the mysterious group and their leader. Anyone willing to go to war to get drugs out of Detroit’s ghettos is crazy, and Kingfisher knows what to do with mad dogs. That puts Kenyatta in the dangerous position of many enemies squeezing in tight. However, these are not the only threats to his rule . . .

With Death List, Donald Goines builds up the world he established in Crime Partners. While that book focused on two hoods who made their bid for the big time, giving us some names and first impressions of the bigger players in their game, Death List zeroes in on those players to flesh out the world. More, it offers readers a clearer view of the people themselves, giving the author a chance to revise the relationships with each other and the world. In the first book, Kenyatta’s army was made up of zealots to his cause. In particular, his woman Betty was a hot little number who was also hyper-capable and intensely loyal. This time around, she is rocked by guilt about the death of a family member that she set up with a doomed hood. Her loyalties are questionable, now. Likewise, Kenyatta’s number two, Ali, described in glowing terms in the first book, takes on a bit of a sinister element here. He questions his boss; he has ambitions of his own that work at cross-purpose with Ken’s. The developments are a bit jarring because so much is happening in a relatively short word count. However, the fluidity of character is refreshing, and it builds on some of the author’s thematic obsessions.

There were actually tears in Kenyatta’s eyes as he talked. Ali glanced away so that Kenyatta wouldn’t realize that he had seen them. Ali knew that the killing of their friends had hit Kenyatta hard, but he hadn’t figured it had hit him that hard. Actually, Ali could take it in stride. So a couple of gunmen and their broads had got knocked off. Those things happened when you played in the big leagues (21)

The people who live and hustle every day are all doomed. The kinder emotions, love and friendship and loyalty, these seem to be temporary qualities at best. The universe seldom (if ever) displays them, and the people who find themselves lost in kindness are soon to be victims themselves. Kindness and love are cons, here, slippery roads to weakness and ultimately destruction.

Kenyatta manages to evade some of this doom by his dedication to his mission. Quite a few people see him as borderline nuts. He kills without hesitation, for now, and maintains a strong façade. He leads his people into war and he celebrates their victories. One gets the sense that his time is numbered, alas. Gangsters all die because the streets of Detroit in Goines’ 1970s are as dangerous as the roaring twenties. In fact, that comparison gets made by two different characters in this book’s slim page count.

From a writing perspective, Donald Goines continues his fascination with providing his readers a cinematic experience. The other king of Detroit-set crime fiction, Elmore Leonard, used his stories to pay clear homage to the films he enjoyed. The Kenyatta series as well has some odes to motion pictures, as well.

Crime Partners relies on the gangster film plot archetype, giving us an up and comer (well two, in this case), seeing those up and comers rise to some kind of power, and then watching their fall. This is the model from the earliest crime films such as Howard Hawks’ 1932 Scarface. Death List continues to show more angles of that archetype. Kenyatta has power, but he continues to amass more. By the novel’s end, however, he is on the run. Kingfisher’s arc rises to its zenith in the book, and his downfall commences in a rush before the end. The cops are growing increasingly aware of the real goings on, and they are pushing in. Although there are two more books in the Kenyatta series, Death List ends quite a few gangster storylines with that inevitable deadly conclusion.

In addition to the gangster archetype, the author adds in some overt horror to his story as well. While Crime Partners featured a harrowing opening that horrified, Death List gives us a few bloody gunfights that would not be out of place in a horror film. Characters get blown away in gruesome fashion by shotguns. It is a splatterpunk story before such a marketing term or aesthetic existed. A character drawn from the horror flicks is even parading around this story. The Creeper is the nickname for a hideous assassin who works for Kenyatta. Although not quite a Universal Monster, he shares a few qualities with those yearning horrors:

He’d been aware for years of his looks, since he’d been a child, when kids started calling him “The Creeper” because of the similarity of his features to those of the man who played the Creeper in the movies. In time, he’d come to accept it, not caring one way or another what they called him. He was a man who live alone, until he met Kenyatta. (72-73)

The Creeper is happy to kill for his boss, but he does so according to his own sick ideas. Comfortable with guns, he prefers to use a straight razor. He has a bloodhound’s dedication to tracking down his prey and no hesitation about causing collateral damage. In fact, he seems to enjoy doing it. Where the gangsters cannot conceive of murdering women and children, The Creeper does so with abandon even when it is not necessary. He tortures, he slashes and he behaves in a rather depraved way. It might seem an odd choice to include a character like this, but it is also an intriguing one.

The line between gangsters, crime and horror has been hazy or nonexistent since the horror/crime comics of the 1950s or even the pulp magazines that preceded them. Goines already straddled the line between the real world horrors and more stylized shocks in his previous works. This time he just delves his deepest yet.

Death List is a brief but powerful work from a man who was nothing less than haunted. It does not surprise me that Goines is still popular forty-five years after he left this world. His fiction swaggers and it shrieks, giving tragic slices of life and death of those existing in the ghettos. The stories might not be realistic perhaps but they offer emotionally honest views of the day-to-day hopes and horrors the author witnessed and lived alongside. The second book in his Kenyatta series, like the first, is an enjoyable if sometimes disturbing read.

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Death List is available in a paperback edition from Holloway House Classics. The covers are a bit cheesy, but the contents are the real draw. As rough as they can get, they are involving.

Next week, we will look at the third book in the series: Kenyatta’s Escape. Death List ends with Kenyatta on the run with his enemies closing in. The next book picks up soon after, giving us the warrior on the move with his army ready to take their fight to The Man. It is available in paperback.

WORKS CITED

Goines, Donald. Death List. Kensington: 1974.

“There Goes The Neighborhood: Donald Goines’ Death List” is copyright © 2020 by Daniel R. Robichaud. Quotes and cover image taken from the Holloway House Classics edition, released 2008.

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