Humpty Dumpty Was Pushed

By Marc Blatte

Schaffner. 283 pp. $24.95

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Reviewed by David Hiltbrand


Three worlds intersect in the early hours outside a nightclub in Manhattan's Chelsea district: would-be rappers, bouncers, and (clean-up on Aisle 5) cops.

As Marc Blatte's debut crime novel makes clear, that's a sure recipe for messy felony.

The deadly incident leaves a colorful NYPD detective widely known as Black Sallie Blue Eyes (sounds more like a mobster name, doesn't it?) to dig through the lives of two very different sets of cousins.

Most white mystery writers steer clear of hip-hop characters because they're afraid their attempts at the idiom will fall disastrously flat on the page. Even a master of dialogue such as Elmore Leonard gives this branch of slang a wide berth.

Blatte, however, is utterly fearless. Everyone in this story uses hip-hop vernacular, from the cops (" 'We the po-po. You ain't. We akse the questions, you answer the questions. Now I'm not gonna akse again' ") to Serbian immigrants (" 'Yo, man. I'm just chillin'. Ain't no thing' ").

A white A&R executive at a record label sounds particularly ghetto: " 'Oh, man, it ain't 'bout that. We been knowin' each other forever.' "

Intriguingly, that character's boss, a black music mogul, is notably refined, a disciple of the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein.

In an office decorated with photographic portraits of John Lennon, Gandhi, Colin Powell, and Mother Teresa, this hip-hop legend explains his rich suburban roots to Black Sallie's detective team: " 'I was born and raised in New Rochelle,' the entrepreneur said as he handed the men drinks. 'Miles Davis had a father who was a successful dentist, both my parents were surgeons. They sent me to Hackley Prep, and from there I went to Haverford College.' "

The audacious dialogue makes Humpty Dumpty seem like a cross between a Grand Theft Auto game and a Richard Price book. The story rattles along at a pretty good clip, although the plot grows murky near its resolution.

Blatte is more solid on music-industry details and the workings of a recording studio. You might expect that from a Grammy-nominated songwriter. With such a background, it makes sense that Blatte caps Humpty Dumpty with a list of more grateful acknowledgments than you'll find on a Mariah Carey CD.

Contact staff writer David Hiltbrand at 215-854-4552 or dhiltbrand@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/daveondemand.