Based on the title, I wasn’t sure I could take To Funk and Die in LA seriously. I’m glad I dug in and tried my best to approach it with an open mind, though, because it paid off. This mystery, part of the D Hunter series by Nelson George, finds the protagonist primarily in the Los Angeles neighborhoods of Koreatown, Crenshaw, and Pico-Union. D’s grandfather was, it seemed, a relatively innocuous grocery store owner. But after his grandfather’s murder, D comes to find out he was heavily enmeshed in illegal activities and had a connection with a reclusive R&B legend, Dr. Funk.
It may seem odd to have a murder mystery reviewed in a music zine, but George’s knowledge of the L.A. music scene—specifically that of the 1980s funk, hip hop, and R&B scenes—is massive. (This shouldn’t be a surprise, since, as a music journalist, he’s been writing about R&B for over thirty-five years.) He seamlessly weaves fictional characters such as Dr. Funk in with Prince and A Tribe Called Quest. He also namedrops Black Flag and NWA along the way. In fact, this book is almost as much about music as it is about a murder. Even though I don’t know much about the black music scene of L.A., it didn’t matter. The characters talked about music not as encyclopedias but as true fans, a way in which they can elucidate their love without appearing annoying.
George writes short chapters, which urged me to not want to put the book down. His characters are realistic and relatable while also being unique. The protagonist, D Hunter, is a black man who is HIV positive. The book teems with blacks, Koreans, and Latinos, especially Salvadorans and Mexicans. There was nary a white person in To Funk and Die in LA, and, as a white person, I wouldn’t have it any other way. The opportunity to experience a different culture with individuals unlike myself is what helps expand my mind.
In addition to being a mystery, these 280 pages are a look at the cultural landscape of Los Angeles and how it has changed over the years. Exposed are the relationships of blacks against Koreans and Latinos against blacks as demographics shifted over the decades. George writes about the changes in the city without being heavy-handed; it comes across in dialogue and realizations but still makes its point.
Reading this book reminded me how much I enjoy mysteries. So much so, in fact, that I’m going to check out the other books in this series from my library. I’d recommended To Funk and Die in LA for mystery fans, Los Angelenos, and connoisseurs of hip hop, R&B, rap, and the like—it’s an engaging, enlightening read. –Kurt Morris (Akashic, 232 Third St. Suite A115, Brooklyn, NY 11215)