top of page


Gary Phillip's second "One Shot Harry" Ingram novel, Ash Dark As Night, is another perfect example of the writer proving how you can be thought provoking and still be entertaining as hell. He creates a vibrant South Central dealing with the Watts riots as Harry searches for a missing white business owner and dealing with a life changes after a damning LAPD photo he took makes him a celebrity. Along with Harry is his girlfriend Anita, who he will learn more about. I talked with Gary about the book, the community it takes place in, and his craft.

SCOTT MONTGOMERY: You open the book with a harrowing opening chapter with Harry taking photos of The Watts Riots. What did you want to convey about that piece of history?

GARY PHILLIPS: The Watts Riots and its aftermath have been written about in various non-fiction books such as Rivers of Blood, Years of Darkness by Robert Conot and Fire This Time by Gerald Horne to novels such as Little Scarlet by Walter Mosley and Joseph Wambaugh’s The New Centurions. In the film version of the latter book there’s a gang brawl the cops break up but the riot itself is not depicted. There’s been various film and cable treatments of ’92, the so-called Rodney King Riots, but not the Watts Uprising directly.

At any rate, I didn’t set out to make a statement per se. The first Harry Ingram book is set in ’63 so there was a logic to his second outing set against this historic incident. But being influenced by the like of Sam Fuller and Chester Himes, this outing had to start on action—Harry walking around like a blamed fool taking pics on Friday the 13th smackdab in the middle of the burnings, lootings and beatings. What I did want to convey was give the reader Harry’s perspective. He’s torn between condemning the destruction but also understanding from where it sprang. Really this reflects how my dad, a WWII vet, reacted to that time when I was a kid.  

S.M.: The plot has several moving parts, but as a reader, I was never lost. Is there a key to keeping a story like this clear?

G.P.: I think the key to any series of reveals is pretty much we stick with Harry, the main protagonist. As he learns information, so do we the reader. The book is told in close third person though there are times when we go away from Harry but not often. And even when that happens, the sub-plots and those characters invariably wind their way around to involving him.

S.M.: Anita Claire is a great Nora to Harry's Nick and so much more. How did you go about constructing her?

G.P.:  Yeah, initially I hadn’t given Anita a whole lot of thought when I incorporated her in the outline for the first book, One-Shot Harry. I’d had the idea for Harry for a few years, even attempted to pitch him as a streaming miniseries at one point. Anyway as I started writing that book and introduced her at the house party, she became more realized to me. I’d known folks like her parents, lefties who’d come through the Red Scare of the ‘50s. Once I located this as her background, with Anita and her sister growing up in that charged time when lives and careers were ruined, I got a handle on who she was when we first come to her. She would be tough but would have an ironic sense of humor. She would be smart and driven. And in today’s parlance, how I could go about providing agency to this character in these stories. It does occur to me as answer your questions, I’ll have to at least write a short story featuring her one of these days.  

S.M..: What I love about the books is the sense of community built through Harry's friends and associates that brings out the place and time. How would you describe Harry's World?

G.P.: One of the aspects of my private eye stories, from Ivan Monk to Nate Hollis (a character first created in comics form, Angeltown, who has made the jump to a series of short stories) and now to bootleg PI Harry Ingram, is these cats are not loners as was the trope not so long ago. I suppose those Rockford Files TV episodes made an impression on my young self given Rockford had his pops, Rocky, to discuss his cases with and such. It just seemed organic while being a private eye is still a lonely profession, down these mean streets and whatnot, the idea he or she could come home to a loved one or hang out with their buddies in a barber shop, that grounded the character, gave the reader a sense of the community they came from – and by extension the community they feel responsible for. 

And like with Anita, I had an idea who Harry’s pals were when we first meet them in the opening pages of the first book. Sitting around playing dominoes, drinking beer and talking smack. I’d done these brief descriptions and backgrounds of them in the outline. Then though as I began writing them, laying down their dialogue distinct one from another, they formed in my head and I was able to inhabit their skin and say something about their flaws and attributes.

As the story develops, their respective roles in telling the tale took on dimension as well. Let me add there’s a blind character in Harry’s World, a grocer, and he’s inspired by a real life person, a blind grocer who was a friend of my father’s.  In making this character a Korean War vet like Harry, a man who lost his sight when he stepped on a land mine, I knew this was a way to bond the two psychologically, both men scarred by their time in the service.

S.M.: Harry sells his photos to the local black papers. The Sentinemtal and Herald Dispatch. What kind of role did they play in the community then?

G.P.: At one point there were four black newspapers in town counting Muhammad Speaks published by the separatist Nation of Islam. The California Eagle was left, The Sentinel somewhat more centrist and as historian Horne has noted in Fire This Time, the Herald-Dispatch was quirky – black nationalist, anti-interracial dating and antisemitic. It wasn’t out of character that in Ash Dark as Night for The Sentinel and Herald-Dispatch, with the Eagle being gone by this time in ’65, to publish Harry’s incendiary photo. My aunt in fact worked in the ad department of The Sentinel for several years and copies of the paper were always around our house. 

I think it’s fair to say The Sentinel was looked upon as the newspaper that would cover a police matter from a different angle that the L.A. Times, or efforts at fair housing or fair employment in the Black community. Brad Pye (who makes an appearance in One-Shot Harry) covered sports and Gertrude Gibson had a long-running society column. It was the paper read by waitresses on their breaks and machine shop workers on the weekend.  The Herald-Dispatch and Muhamad Speaks (which generally covered news involving the NOI) were much more a niche black nationalist audience.  Let me add The Sentinel still exits today.

S.M.: While I love and highly recommend your first books with Ivan Monk, I see a broader scope and a more refined technique. What is the biggest way you have grown as a writer over the years?

G.P.: Thanks for your kind words, man. All I can say is all these years putting in sweat in the salt mines of crime fiction, you better learn how to pace yourself, make that lick and make it count. The biggest takeaway is I probably write the same amount of words but try to be more disciplined in what I cut and reshape. And not for nothing, appreciate having a great editor!


bottom of page