The Lost Treasures of R&B: A D Hunter Mystery by Nelson George
Reviewed by Gabino Iglesias
Author Nelson George’s academic knowledge of hip-hop and R&B and sharp, street-savvy prose come together in The Lost Treasures of R&B to offer a narrative that’s as much about the quest for an almost mythical record as it is about learning to survive and the effects of gentrification in Brooklyn. Equal parts mystery, celebration of New York City’s urban heart, and musical history lesson, this novel occupies the interstitial space between unabashedly fun entertainment and meaningful themes locked in a noirish atmosphere.
D Hunter is a professional bodyguard who’s just moved back to Brooklyn, his birthplace, after years living in Manhattan. His first job after moving back is protecting rapper Asya Roc while he goes to see the fights at an underground fight club in Brownsville. Unfortunately, watching the fights is not the only thing on the rapper’s mind; he’s going to the illegal club to buy some guns. The man delivering the guns is Ice, one of D’s many acquaintances. While the deal is going down, a youngster bursts in with a gun in his hand and shoots Ice. D manages to drag the scared rapper to safety but ends up with the bag of guns and two armed men with bad intentions chasing him through the dark streets. D gets rid of the guns, but not before shots split the night and bodies fall down, which lands him in the eye of a corrupt detective named Rivera. What starts as a simple crime quickly turns into a convoluted mess of hidden agendas and secrets that go from the guns themselves and dirty cops to a missing record by Otis Redding and Diana Ross, and D has to try to solve it all while learning to readjust to Brooklyn and learning to cope with the failure of his security company.
George possesses a distinctive voice that carries the narrative forward at a superb pace and makes The Lost Treasures of R&B a quick, satisfying read. While there’s enough action packed into the story to please fans of trope-heavy crime fiction, there are also a plethora of elements like music, history, and social/racial commentary that turn the novel into a hybrid between noir and literary fiction.
Besides the great writing and historical/musical angles, The Lost Treasures of R&B also offers an outstanding protagonist. D Hunter is one of those rare characters that, besides being likeable, believable, and engaging, feels like a necessary presence in contemporary fiction. He is not only a smart African American living with HIV, but also someone with a rich life story that has one foot in New York City’s past and one in the modern era of social networking sites and smart phones. Through D’s eyes, the reader analyzes New York City’s diversity and ever-changing nature:
“D sat back on his sofa and took stock of his life. He hadn’t lived in Brooklyn for decades and certainly never expected to again after he’d left like Tony Manero in Saturday Night Fever, Alfred Kazin in A Walker in the City, and thousands of other Brooklynites who’d crossed the East River to make their mark, Brooklyn was a place of you roots but not your future, unless you planned on being a cop, crook, civil servant, or candy store owner. Brooklyn had been a place to visit, Manhattan a place to thrive.”
Music is a very tough subject to write about because the way it makes listeners feels and the ethereal nature of life performances make it ineffable. However, George manages to write about it successfully by dealing with feelings in a very straightforward manner, offering great descriptions, and having dizzyingly creative spurts of alliteration: “…a bacchanal of boogying butts bounced to bodacious beats.”
While The Lost Treasures of R&B is the third entry into the D Hunter series, reading the previous books, The Accidental Hunter and The Plot Against Hip Hop, is not required to fully enjoy the narrative because it works well as a standalone. Many novels take place in Brooklyn/Brownsville, but few are as entrenched in its history and present transformation as this one, and its deeply-rooted relationship to the streets and buildings allows the story to become a biography of place that does for NYC what the work of writers like James Ellroy and Raymond has done for Los Angeles. George Nelson’s passion for Brooklyn, the effects of time and change, and musical greats past and present coalesce here to offer a different and very engaging novel.