the jones men
The Jones Men, by Vern E Smith, is hands down one of the best crime novels I’ve ever read. Relentless and bloody, with minimalistic prose, it is a simple story about a Detroit drug war in the early seventies. Smith, an accomplished and important journalist, published the book in 1974 after reporting on the heroin business. It is his only novel. Since he’s still alive, one can hope he has another one in him, or that the screenplay he wrote (and which got a table reading in New York) will be produced. Long before David Simon’s epic Homicide/The Corner>The Wire, Smith laid it all out.
It starts with the funeral of a low-level dealer, whose cocaine-dusted corpse lies in repose for a carnival of Detroit’s finest smack merchants to admire and gossip over. Among the mourners are Willis McDaniels, the biggest dealer in town, and two guys looking to take over: Lennie Jack, an intelligent, enigmatic, Vietnam vet and his lieutenant, Joe Red.
A junky overhears a conversation and tells another junky what he overheard who tells Lenny Jack: McDaniels is expecting a huge shipment of pure heroin from New York. Lennie and Joe rob the shipment and assassinate T.C. Thomas, McDaniel’s Luca Brazzi. From here on the book details, day by day, McDaniel’s search for Lennie Jack, and Lenny Jack’s increasingly desperate moves to sell the heroin and score an even bigger shipment with the money, supplanting McDaniels. The blood flows abundantly, no one is safe, the cops are always one step behind, and the guys betray each other for as much as tens of thousands of dollars in cash and for as little as a few capsules of dope.
There are many joys in this book: the relentless pace, the dead-on dialogue, perfectly staged murders and shootouts, doors flying off their hinges, slow elevators in the projects, seedy shooting galleries, but most of all, the color of seventies Detroit: the cars the dealers drive, described with as much love and detail as an exploding head, and the clothes, the fur coats and hats, the goatees, the glittering swag, the glasses of Courvoisier and piles of coke. This is a world in the midst of transformation, as the heroin trade slips out of the hands of organized crime and into the hands of local operators, one of downward metamorphosis, devoid of romanticism and sentimentality, even of love, as all relationships, even between brothers, are transactional. A few brave souls hold out nearly to the end, but they all talk and the end always comes. It is just breathtaking.