Saturday before last, Prodigy of Mobb Deep dropped in on the Harlem Book Fair, sitting in conversation with Okayplayer literary columnist (and scholar of Queens urban lore) Rishi Nath at the Countee Cullen branch of the New York Public Library to launch his new novella, titled simply H.N.I.C. —a dip into the grimy waters of urban fiction clearly designed to capitalize on the success of his 2011 memoir My Infamous Life–and in the process provide the Queens MC with a new outlet for his well-established talent for ominous, finely-textured noir storytelling. The book launch represented two maiden voyages in one, however. Not only is H.N.I.C. Prodigy’s first foray into street lit–at least of the printed kind–it is also the first title from Infamous Books, a joint venture between Prodigy, his manager Marvis Johnson and Brooklyn-based indie publisher Akashic Books. On paper, their little venture threatened to be the perfect crime: using Mobb Deep’s street credibility and Akashic’s book smarts to corner the market in urban fiction. And as the crowd in Harlem ate it up–followed closely by another rapt audience at another appearance at Powerhouse Arena in Brooklyn later that week–it appeared everything was going to happen just the way Johnny said it would. That’s Johnny Temple–the co-founder and owner of Akashic, who’d already made a name for the upstart publishing house with the success of Go The F**k To Sleep and Brooklyn Noir, among others. But I’m getting ahead of the story. Let’s rewind:
The plan was simple: get the dough and make book, in roughly that order. Prodigy was the brains of the operation. Long before he linked up with Johnny, he had the guts of H.N.I.C.–originally a screenplay for a movie, intended to accompany his solo LP of the same name–in a folder at the crib. Steven Savile was the specialist–the award-winning sci fi and fantasy writer for TV serials like Dr. Who and Stargate–not to mention the best-selling computer game Battlefield 3–that Johnny brought in from the U.K. to help flesh out P’s script into a prose novella; something that would stand up to critical attention of crime fiction aficianados, whether rap literate or not. Of course, a nerdy British cat putting words into the mouth of an official Queensbridge murderer is a very risky business–potentially a very unstable compound of the type that’s more likely to blow up in its creators’ faces than set the world on fire.
In a classic case of art-imitates-heist the story of H.N.I.C. centers around an equally unlikely team, sticking together less than willingly to pull off a caper that will allow them to retire from the street life. Pappy is a computer nerd with ambitions beyond the hood, while Black is the bold, dominating and increasingly erratic ringleader of a gang of stick up kids who came up together in Brooklyn’s Sumner Houses–a set of characters ostensibly based on Prodigy’s real life acquaintances. Black needs Pappy’s technical knowledge to help the crew pull off a diamond heist thats considerably above their paygrade–and Pappy remains with Black for reasons he can’t quite explain but which pit a sense of brotherly loyalty against an unhealthy attraction to Black’s lady, Tonya. It’s the love triangle formed by these 3 characters, as much as the more obvious tension between Pappy and Black, that drives the plot forward and as both robberies and affairs of the heart start to go bad, it quickly becomes clear that before the book is over–one of these main characters has got to go.
Prodigy and Savile, at least, manage to emerge from this tale unscathed. Their are missteps in their teamwork–Savile’s british-icms sometimes creep into the novella’s criminal slang, causing hoodrats to ‘fuck about’ when they would otherwise just fuck around and resulting in liberal use of the word ‘cunt’ from both cops and robbers in a way that would never stand on U.S. soil. But for the most part Prodigy’s detailed observation of hood life and his characters motivations (Pappy doesn’t just want to stay alive, he wants to stay alive “so long that he’d become the old n**ga on the tenement stoop, sucking his licquorice-paper cigarette and blowing smoke rings…”) shines through in the text. Meanwhile Savile’s rhythmic, tightly-paced prose moves the novella along at a pace that is best described as flow. The result is that rarest of things; a narrative that works on street level as well as a cerebral one. In a genre that too often places incorrect ebonics in the mouths of black characters and fails to cross the empathy gap to get into their heads, Savile and Prodigy arrive at a seamless voice that is a refreshing take on crime fiction tropes.
Part of what makes this work so well is an awareness of noir, a doubly literate sense that recognizes that gritty 90s rap–from The Infamous to The Notorious–was already inspired by hard-boiled pulp fiction and gangster movies of the depression-era to begin with, making this extension of its lyricism into paperback form a sort of homecoming. The blood-simple conclusion of this revenge tale may leave readers used to the more complicated twists of conspiracy thrillers and murder mysteries wishing the novella had been developed into a novel, with room to poke around in some of the unexplored corners of the plot. But if tone and texture are what you’re looking for in your hardcore literature…H.N.I.C. delivers the goods.