As I open Viper’s Dream to the first page, I put on my headphones and play the first tune on the author’s playlist listed at the back of the book — ‘’Round Midnight’, played by Thelonious Monk — and, like a velvet curtain plunging down when released, a smoky and vibrant scene is unfurled to me. Midnight, Harlem, 1961. A jazz club where the sounds of a sax or bass slide and wave through the air, weaving amongst the dancers, drinkers, and smokers. And sat there contemplating what could be his last night on Earth, is Clyde ‘The Viper’ Morton, one of the most feared – or loved – gangsters of New York City. Oozing pure classic jazz noir, our April Book of the Month is one hell of a hard-boiled crime novel.
Given three hours to flee before he is caught and arrested for murder, Viper sits with a bourbon and notepad in the Cathouse, slowly twirling a pencil reflecting on what three wishes he’d choose to be granted. Looking back at the last twenty-five years of his life in Harlem, this is a story in retrospect, centred around the three murders Viper commits between 1936 and 1961. Arriving in Harlem as a wide-eyed Black country boy from Alabama with a case containing his father’s trumpet, he quickly learns he’s an aspiring musician with no talent. Hired by a rich businessman and powerful drug dealer as a heavy man, Viper rapidly rises through the years as the most powerful gangster of Harlem. Viper is witness to many changes in Harlem over the decades — of big band to bebop to early rock ‘n’ roll, of sparkling businesses turned to post-war charred remains, or even the lock of his own apartment. Yet when deadly heroin starts to snake its way through the streets and threaten all Viper holds dear — jazz, business, the beautiful femme fatale singer Yolanda “Yo-Yo” DeVray — he is as deadly as his namesake in his steadfast and bloody fight against all those who dare to deal in it.
Though short, this is a richly condense novel with sharp dialogue and music, sounds and smells that leap to life off the page. With cameos of real Harlem legends from the mid-century jazz scene such as Miles Davies, Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane, the vivid characters of the novel feel just as real alongside them. Truly unique, Lamar is a fresh voice in contemporary crime fiction, immersing the reader in 20th century Harlem as a thriving hub of Black music, art, dance, fashion and business. A novel that plays to the beat of its own snare drum, Lamar includes a repertoire list of music to score the narrative — which in itself carries the very atmosphere of jazz music: passionate, sharp, fast, slow, past, modern, romantic, gritty, melancholy, unexpected, vibrant… alive.
You tempted? That’s what I figured.
‘Viper’s Dream is one Long High, sweeping us through Harlem from the 1930s to the 1960s on riffs of melancholy poetry cut through with the hardboiled beats of gangsters and their streets, leaving us hooked on a pure, true Jazz Noir Classic.’David Peace
‘Prepare yourself for a total immersion into Harlem, from the 1930s to the 1960s, into a universe of music and drug trafficking, of murder and betrayal, interspliced with a most dangerous love story.’ELLE
‘A sweet and melancholy jazz symphony.’Sunday Journal
Viper’s Dream is published by No Exit Press
9780857305497 // PB // £9.99 // 20th April 2023