“Book Review: Hands Up”
Reviewed by Gary Corbin
A unique police procedural that could challenge your view on racism and police misconduct
Racism can be a touchy subject for a novelist. Writers are told to “Show, not tell,” and showing racism in a way that challenges a reader’s biases rather than offending the reader can be a delicate exercise, fraught with danger. Fortunately, in Hands Up, author Stephen Clark navigates that tightrope and leaves the reader questioning instead whether their own behavior might cross the wrong line.
The story opens with a bang—literally. The protagonist, rookie policeman Ryan Quinn, has killed an unarmed black youth named Tyrell Wakefield. Quinn’s partner Greg insists it was a clean shooting, but Greg’s racism leads Ryan to doubt himself. His mostly black north Philadelphia community and the department’s internal affairs investigator have even stronger doubts, and Ryan is suspended, pending investigation.
The author chooses to alternate the narrative point of view among three key characters: Ryan; the victim’s sister, Jade; and Jade’s estranged criminal father, Kelly. This proves effective, as each character provides a unique and critical perspective on both the case and on the cultural underpinnings of the divided community’s reaction.
Tyrell’s death sparks his father’s desire to reunite with his family and repent for his various sins against them (chiefly, abandonment). But Jade sees Kelly’s opportunistic intrusion as disingenuous and risky. White cops rarely get indicted, much less convicted, of murder in such cases. Painting the victim’s past with the brush of a criminal father would only make conviction less likely, raising doubts about whether justice will be served, even with the hotshot media-obsessed lawyer who handles their case pro bono.
Kelly’s re-emergence into Jade’s life also divides the family and reignites self-destructive behavior on Jade’s part that made me squirm a time or two. But she’s a strong character, and I found myself rooting for her and Ryan both—even though they stood poised on opposite sides of a thorny issue. Part of my enjoyment of the book arose from wondering how these characters’ conflicting goals both could be achieved—or, would neither?
Many stories of this type suffer from too much plot and not enough exploration of motivation and interpersonal relationships. But author Stephen Clark is careful to weave in complex family and friendship dynamics on both sides. He also sprinkles in romantic elements, although some of these elements strike me as unlikely. Ryan’s fiancée also comes across as a bit one-dimensional, but these are perhaps the weakest threads in the book. The flaws here are not critical to the plot, nor to the likability of the key characters.
Of greater concern is the way the racism, and to a lesser extent sexism, is handled in this book. At one level, Clark carries off his goal of challenging the reader to understand how racism plays out, both in a character’s psyche and in their daily lives. On the other hand, some racist references are left unjustified. White characters almost uniformly refer to black characters as violent and inferior, while black characters uniformly characterize whites as untrustworthy and unwoke. A Latina character needs to “lay off the rice and beans,” and at another point, a father crudely notices the size of his daughter’s breasts. These comments took me out of the story and made me wonder at times if the racism (and sexism) needles would, in the end, be threaded effectively.
In the end, this book does succeed in conveying an important theme, if at times uncomfortably. The main characters prove compelling and complex, and the author provides enough twists and turns in the plot to keep me reading to the end. If the occasional racial discomfort doesn’t turn you off, I suspect you will, too.
Publisher: WiDo Publishing
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