It’s been thirty years since the Father’s Day Bank Massacre of 1991, a robbery at the United Bank Tower in Denver which ended in the murders of four bank guards. The prime suspect, a former cop, was acquitted at trial. Anyone familiar with the incident can easily trace the similar threads that Robert Justice skillfully weaves in his debut crime novel, They Can’t Take Your Name. Reconstructed as Mother’s Day Massacre, the story follows the lives of acquitted detective Slager, a wrongfully convicted father facing the death sentence, Langston Brown, and his daughter Liza, who’s in law school fighting until the end to prove Brown’s innocence on a case where “every witness said that the murderer was white.” Setting the story in the Five Points neighborhood of Denver, Robert Justice takes a single family’s story of injustice and places it on a larger communal level. Appropriately so, because it is only through collective protests and especially the witness of a jazz club owner and grieving widower, Eli Stone, that the mystery and plot surrounding the crime slowly unravels.
From the beginning, we are introduced to Black artists and social activists like Langston Hughes, Frantz Fanon, W.E.B Dubois; they saturate the text, a presence that almost immediately grounds the story in a liberation movement. It is not surprising to see a bookshelf filled with “Black Skin, White Masks” and “The Souls of Black Folk.” You can expect to hear Mile Davis’s Kind of Blue and Coltrane’s A Love Supreme fill up a room when you turn a page—songs that cleanse the heart and soothe the soul. This tribute to Black Arts bears a great resemblance to what Caleb Azuma Nelson offers in his novel, Open Water. Both writers are sure to not only incorporate the art but also to capture its cultural significance where Jazz becomes a radical tool of resistance, expression, and examination of history and power. Hanging on a wall is Gilbert Young’s He Ain’t Heavy, the famous painting depicting one black man reaching out to grab an outstretched hand, carrying the underlying message of our obligation to each other. It is precisely what the people at Five Points do, especially the workers in the barbershop where Langston Brown worked—a place where the man offered history lessons about civil rights activists Malcolm X and Martin Luther to young boys who showed up for haircuts. In this novel, seemingly normal events and daily conversations are always doing something more; it is as if Robert Justice undertakes subtle revolutions, draws you in when you least expect, and invites you to experience hope and history.
But it is a history that is troubled and, indeed, still with a firm hold on the present. When Eli quotes Fanon from memory, “I am black, not because of a curse, but because my skin has been able to capture all the cosmic effluvia,” not only are we called to reflect on the philosopher’s argument about the cognitive dissonance of the Black folk but Justice also pulls us into a moment where a Black man has to continually remind himself of the stakes of his existence in a world that frames him as a threat. It is most evident in a scene where Eli is stopped by a cop when he’s taking a walk. It is not a scene that is unfamiliar—a knee in his back and cuffs sunk into his wrists—and yet, it stops you in your tracks (or at least I hope it does) as this only occurs because Eli “happened to match the description of the person” they were looking for. He is only cut loose when they find someone who does meet the description. There is no mystery here because again, what Justice portrays is a world we are currently living in and, as such, one barely has to struggle to draw on their imagination to visualize the act. But there are questions the writer leaves unanswered, possibly because, this too, is not unknown territory: what description might that be and what would have happened if they hadn’t caught the other guy?
These questions will sit heavily with readers, provoking us and drawing our attention to the justice system in the United States. I believe, too, that novels of this kind serve to deepen our engagement with the struggle for freedom, systems of oppressions, and the often unseen maddening terror that can seize up a man who knows that he is unseen where he ought to belong, and when he is seen, it is only within the framework of something as inanimate as a description. This tension within the self is strongly echoed in Eli, even as he walks free, and Langston, an innocent man on death row. Under different conditions, liberation is still far out of reach for both men, and many who look like them. Again, one can detect the undertones of collectiveness, the joint responsibility that this movement demands. As a writer, Robert Justice advocates for education of the justice system and its operation, especially factors that lead to wrongful conviction. “Our criminal justice system is broken. Reform–transformations–is needed to address mass incarceration,” he writes.
With its short chapters, events in the novel may appear to carry a sense of brevity, as though the reader is having a quick glimpse of things as they unfold. But with the style, Justice smoothly shifts from several perspectives, offering a fair and engaging account from the different characters. We see private moments of a daughter visiting her father in prison, a man consistently showing up for a date night with his dead wife, and a detective confessing his crime to a priest before the unexpected happens. We’re led into the corrupt chambers of mayors and governors and between the walls of a death chamber, witness the tilting of a gurney, a convulsing body, and the sound of the clacking teeth. The imagery is one that draws on every sensory detail, an appeal that immerses you in a scene while its distressing occurrence feels so close, so real. Justice brings a fresh momentum to the story when partway through, the chapters end with a countdown to Langston’s death. With twenty-seven days to live, a man with the answers to the mystery dies, further complicating the plot and building intense tension that nearly every crime novel is driven by. At three days to live, the evidence meant for DNA testing to prove his innocence goes missing. If Robert Justice intends for the reader to have a taste of this restlessness and severe foreboding, this difficult moment of waiting while your life is sealed in an undeserving fate, the plain terror of what is to come, he succeeds. You will find there is as much tragedy in this novel as there is hope and the fierce resilience to keep fighting. They Can’t Take Your Name offers significantly more than the thrill and entertainment of the detective tale; it calls for the urgency and commitment to issues of injustice and succeeds in enlightening us that the greatest injustice in our justice system is wrongful conviction. Robert Justice executes this goal with a writing style that is intelligible, compelling, and emotionally charged. This is a relevant novel for many reasons but especially for its portrayal of the present times, which undeniably points to the longstanding history of racism in the United States. By telling and reading these stories, we participate in the slow and enduring transformation and purposefully reclaim the narrative of what it means to be black and human and freely alive in this country.
by Robert Justice
Crooked Lane Books
Published on December 07, 2021