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Across 110Th. Hardcover – January, 1970
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The basic plot remains the same as the movie, but the book is a big improvement in terms of fleshing out the characters. We slowly learn bits of backstory for the three thieves, for the two detectives assigned to find them, for the sadistic Mafia enforcer sent to Harlem by the family Don to execute the robbers as a lesson, and for Doc Johnson, the Black man who runs Harlem's underworld under the Don's thumb.
I have not read many of the mid-20th century "hard-boiled" detective novels starring Mike Hammer, Philip Marlowe, or any of that ilk. But from what little I know of the genre, I believe this novel would not be out of place in that company - except for the fact that racial tensions between Blacks and Whites play a major part in Ferris's tale. The detectives assigned to the case are the bigoted Frank Sullivan, a classic New York Irish cop, and Bill Pope, his African-American partner. Whereas the same characters in the movie (where "Frank Sullivan" becomes Frank Matelli) barely tolerate each other, in the book, Pope seems to view his partner as more of a mentor, and doesn't seem wholly adverse to using the same "classic" NYPD tactics to get results.
Then there is the Battle for Harlem. To what extent this is based in reality, I don't know; while La Cosa Nostra certainly played a major role in vice throughout New York City for decades, and while East Harlem once had a large Italian population, "Across 110th" gets much of its tension from the continuing dominance of a "White" criminal organization over a Black neighborhood. The scene where enforcer Nick DiFalco tells Doc Johnson that he will be handling the punishment of the robbers - who, in addition to stealing a hundred thousand dollars, have also killed several Mafiosi as well as two cops - would win any reader who isn't Silvio Berlusconi over to Johnson's side:
JOHNSON: ...I been given this district to milk long before I heard of Nick DiFalco and I don't need you now to show me how to run the business -
DiFALCO: Your business is running our business...You may be somethin' up here, but below a Hundred and Tenth Street you're just another fat n----
Similarly, Ferris skillfully leads the reader to root for the three Black thieves, if for no other reason than that they seem far preferable to the venal, racist cops and gangsters hunting them down. Our knowledge of the merciless force pursuing the trio leads to moments of nearly unbearable suspense, as in the bar where drunken thief Henry Jackson refuses to JUST LEAVE, despite unmistakable warning signals.
The book is a definite product of its time: the Harlem streetcorners teem with crowds listening to (presumably, though unnamed) Nation of Islam speakers railing against White devils, blues music drifts across tenement courtyards in a time years before hip-hop dominated New York's airwaves, and there is absolutely no suggestion that such a thing as a "post-racial America" could ever exist.
It’s a noir world, where only the desperate camaraderie between the thieves (and their leader’s involvement with a neighborhood woman scared for his life) suggest any but the most parasitic, hostile relationships between humans - with the exception of the partnership between the White and Black detective. Throughout the book, but especially in the very last pages, we come to believe that, despite Sullivan's bigotry and Pope's awareness of it, the two share an odd, unlikely respect for each other.
Reading "Across 110th", you get a sense of how much better the movie might have been had it devoted more time to character development and creating a sense of Harlem as something more than one big crime scene. And that’s coming from someone who has watched the movie a dozen times and still finds it to be a flawed masterpiece.