Three things surprised me about the book, Shaft:
First, the paperback copy on my shelf, unread until now because I had seen the 1971 movie several times, is not a novelization of the film, but an original novel written by Ernest Tidyman, published in 1970.
Second, the novel is old fashioned and current at the same time. New York City, where the story is set, was on its heels at the time. Times Square, where 28-year-old, black, private investigator John Shaft has his office, was a sleazy place full of crumbling movie houses, porno book stores and strip joints. But, many of the struggles of the African-Americans living in Harlem then, are the same today.
Third: Ernest Tidyman, a man whose name I have seen in movie credits, and who I always assumed was black, was white.
Shaft is the story of Harlem-born, Vietnam-vet, P.I. John Shaft who is approached by uptown’s most powerful and feared gangster with a personal request. Knocks Persons wants to hire Shaft to find out who kidnapped his teenage daughter and where they are holding her.
The Mafia grabbed the girl to pressure Persons into relinquishing control of Harlem. But Persons knew that. He was using Shaft to smoke them out and to settle some scores.
Before the old mob tipped its hand, Shaft tracked down and approached a militant young black leader, Ben Buford, for information. While meeting in a secret and secure building with Buford’s men guarding the place, the place is attacked, killing the guards and nearly killing Buford and Shaft.
Later, in an attempt to negotiate with the mob, Shaft is ambushed, takes a hell of an ass-kicking, and is dumped on Knocks’ doorstep as a warning to the Harlem gangster.
While most men would be rushed to the hospital, Shaft rushes into action with a plan to smash into the kidnappers hideout, rescue the girl and stomp the men who beat him. All of this is executed in a series of incidents even more impossible than the end of the movie based on this book.
Tidyman was very good with action and dialogue, not quite as good with the odd, internal musings of John Shaft. But overall, Shaft is a well done, fun read, and if I can find Tidyman’s other Shaft novels, I will be reading them, too.