Thursday, September 15, 2016

The School on 103rd Street by Ronald Jefferson

The School on 103rd Street
aka The Secret Below 103rd Street
by Ronald Jefferson
Vantage Press 1976
Holloway House 1976
Old School Books 1997

After some teenage kids vandalize the new school on 103rd Street in Watts, one of them is found dead, tied up and his eyes gouged out.  The kids go to the only grownup they can trust, hip community clinic doctor Elwin Carter.

Dr. Carter spends the next half of the novel being an upper middle class African-American professional in 1970s LA.  He sails on his friends' yacht, goes to dinner parties, buys brand name clothing, hangs out with his cool chick Sable, and drives around in his Ferrari.  Meanwhile, another kid is killed off page.

Carter recruits a 'Nam buddy to help him break into the school.  After a lengthy planning session worthy of Joseph Rosenberger, they discover a hidden door behind the boiler that leads to an empty prison with a state of the art medical facility and room for 500 prisoners.

Carter's Nam buddy recruits one of his buddies to check it out, then they hire his buddies to find similar prisons around the country and place explosives in each, timed to go off together.  Someone screws up the time zones and the bomb at the school on 103rd is mistakenly set to go off after students arrive for class.

Dr. Carter and Sable rush to stop the bomb, with Sable murdering two cops along the way.  They show up too late, and the bomb kills Carter along with scores of innocents.  Sable takes off for the airport and is shot in the back the end.

As a thriller, it just isn't.  Most of the action is done by friends of a friend of a friend and occurs off page.  It doesn't particularly work as conspiracy fiction - even if some questions go answered, conspiracy fiction requires at least some of it be uncovered.  There are hints that the prisons are to be used in some kind of Doc Savage style re-education camps, but the characters in the novel accept them as black genocide death camps.

The novel does a great job tapping in to the not-completely-unreasonable sense of paranoia and helplessness of the time.  Down in my neck of the woods, every time a Walmart or airport shuts down it's taken as a given that the UN will use them for death camps when all the bubbas are rounded up if they don't give up their guns and bibles.  Historically speaking, black genocide is a titch more plausible.

Where the book really shines is how it captures the vibe of mid-70s Watts.  In addition to the nightlife and music, we've got the pervasive distrust that plagued the people of that era.  I think the book would have been better served as a straight period piece, or dedicated itself more to the conspiracy elements.

While themes of corruption and oppression are ubiquitous to 70s African American literature and film, I haven't seen a lot of examples of big-C Conspiracies.  The closest I can think of is Three the Hard Way.

Available in paperback from Amazon.

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