Chicago native Danny Gardner aims to change the game for Black crime fiction writers

The Pushcart Prize-nominated author launches his new book ‘Ace Boon Coon: The Tales of Elliot Caprice’ via Bronzeville Books, the publishing company he founded.

Author and Washington Heights native Danny Gardner, a Def Comedy Jam alumnus, says he thinks the publishing industry doesn’t know what to do with fictional, Chicago-based Black characters. Jeff Lorch

Chicago native Danny Gardner knows what it’s like to be a Black author who has to go through gatekeepers in literary spaces often dominated by white publishers to explain Black life.

“There’s a little code-switching, but, when you from Chicago and you want a job one day, you got to talk like you want someone to understand you, right?” Gardner says. “But when you write a character like that, and you’re trying to get it on the stage in New York, and you hand it to somebody in Los Angeles, they think you’re a figment of the imagination. … They told me Elliot Caprice wasn’t real. I’m, like, ‘Elliot Caprice is sitting across from you, and I’m just trying to tell y’all how to treat me.’ ”

The protagonist of Gardner’s new book “Ace Boon Coon: The Tales of Elliot Caprice,” scheduled for a Sept. 15 release, is a disgraced Black Chicago police officer caught between two worlds — black and white, Black and Jewish organized crime — in the 1950s. Caprice returns to his rural home to help his uncle save the family farm, then is pulled back to Chicago for a murder and to sort out the tensions between local factions with interests in the development of the University of Illinois’ Chicago campus.

Throughout the book, Gardner, a Washington Heights native, mentions local institutions and notable Chicagoans such as the old Michael Reese Hospital, the Chicago Defender, the city’s legendary Black newspaper, the late Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad, the late Chicago Sun-Times columnist Vernon Jarrett and the Pullman porters.

“I am a product of the Chicago Public School System after it had been taken over by radical, Black teachers from a Black liberation theological perspective,” Gardner says. “It was the ‘Access to Excellence’ program. You’d be a Black kid in South Side Chicago in 1977, you test out most of your grades — and so that was the experiment. You’ve got a rich history that’s being taught to you from within these Black enclaves where people who are directly influenced by the racial traumas they have experienced coming up through the [Great] Migration trying to stabilize up from Jim Crow, trying to get in Chicago.

“And, by that time, you’ve got Gwendolyn Brooks coming up with a poetry program for all of the Black kids on the South and West Sides of Chicago, and you’ve got the most well-funded public library systems around. You’re taught a totally different vision of your reality than the one that is being marketed to you everywhere else.”

Ace Boon CoonThrough the book and the publishing company Bronzeville Books that Gardner started in 2018, he says he aims to publish the work of Black creatives and people from other underrepresented groups who specialize in mystery, crime, suspense, romance and adventure. Nikki Dolson’s “Love and Other Criminal Behavior,” published in June, was Bronzville’s first release.

Gardner, a Def Comedy Jam alumnus who’s been a nominee for the Pushcart Prize for small-press literary achievement, says the publishing industry doesn’t know what to do with fictional Chicago-based Black characters. His previous work includes his first novel “A Negro and an Ofay: The Tales of Elliot Caprice Book 1,” “Forever” and his short-fiction piece “Labor Day.”

Talking about white-owned publishing houses, he says, “They don’t see us. They just don’t. They don’t see [Chicagoans] in regard to us as being distinct between any other Black person. There are etymologies involved. There are migration paths involved. … Chicago is the capital of all that is Black in the globe because all the Blackness rose up and found economic parity despite white folks’ resistance. The Black Belt became Bronzeville because of that. … But they still don’t believe that we [Black Chicagoans] exist in the way I write us. When I wrote Elliot in these books, I wrote men like you and me in these books.”

Gardner says he thinks crime fiction can ease readers into understanding complex issues such as the ones seen during the recent unrest.

“I wrote the values and the ideals of Black Chicago, and they eat it up,” he says. “And then when I go on book tours and sit in the bookstores with [would-be readers] and tell them we’re real, they’d be thinking they found a new indigenous tribe or something they didn’t know existed. They just never seen this level of Black dignity.”