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  • Written by Nichelle D. Tramble
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  • Written by Nichelle D. Tramble
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A Maceo Redfield Novel

Written by Nichelle D. TrambleAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Nichelle D. Tramble


List Price: $9.99


On Sale: March 10, 2001
Pages: 0 | ISBN: 978-0-375-50653-6
Published by : Villard Ballantine Group
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Billy: dead. Felicia: missing.

None of the words made sense together, but the doom I'd expected announced itself. I felt iron in my mouth, like I'd gargled with pennies, a taste like blood, a bitter taste that always followed bad news.

The setting is Oakland, 1989; the crack epidemic is at its height and turf wars are brewing. Maceo Redfield, currently on hiatus from college, is walking a fine line between respectability and involvement in Oakland's drug underworld. As he waits in the neighborhood barbershop, one of his closest childhood friends, Holly Ford, brings him the news of the murder of Billy Crane, the third member of their childhood trio and a successful drug dealer. Felicia, Billy's girlfriend and Maceo's true love, is on the run and suspected of setting up the hit. As he searches for Felicia and the answer to the mystery of Billy's murder, Maceo is drawn deeper into a world in which dealers, players, and interlopers, obeying a code of honor all their own, engage in a deadly game to capture the heart of Oakland. When Maceo uncovers the truth about Billy, the story builds to a terrifying and painful climax.


"Well, if it ain't little bitty Maceo Albert Bouchaund Redfield! That name so tall the boy got to walk up under it and say excuse me every day of his natural-born life."

The crowded barbershop broke into laughter as Cutty greeted me with a variation of the same put-down he'd been using for over sixteen years. The fact is that at five feet five inches I barely reach the first letter of my six-foot-tall name.

"How short are you exactly, Maceo?" This came from a balding contemporary of my Grandfather Albert.

"I'm tall as I need to be," I answered.

I eased into the shop, taking note of the old and young faces waiting in the unusually relentless heat of October.

"And how tall is 'need to be'?" Cutty grinned my way.

Cutty had been my barber since my seventh birthday, and habit kept me a customer despite the insulting words. The barbershop was one place in Oakland that provided shelter if needed and contributed order to an often chaotic life.

More simply, it was home.

Cutty was as invested in me as a blood relative. Alongside his prized Oakland A's paraphernalia, snapshots of local celebrities, and barber's license was a photographic history of my baseball career from Pee Wee League through high school. Up until the ninth grade, all my uniforms bore the red-and-white logo of Cutty's salon, Crowning Glory. The pictures were his way of staking a claim before I hit the majors.

"You didn't answer my question. How tall is 'need to be'?"

A waiting customer piped up with his opinion. "I say he's four ten and a half on a good day." The ensuing laughter reminded me that people often see my height as a flaw. It has been a source of ridicule since I was a young boy, but to me my size is a day-to-day reminder—a reminder to keep life compact and close to the vest. The few times I've reached for the height of others I've been knocked back into place. So I've learned to live as a little man with a big name. And I've learned to smile at the jokes.

"Five foot." Another barber.

And Cutty: "Shit, Maceo ain't seen hide nor hair of five feet." He raised his natural comb to his mouth to think for a moment. "No, I take that back. Maceo was about seven feet tall when he was winning all those championships." And just like that the jokes about my height switched to praise for my baseball career.

I was used to that too.

Cutty picked up a portable fan and held it in front of his face. "Damn, feels like Africa outside." Oliver, Cutty’s partner, rolled his eyes. "What you know about Africa? You barely left Oakland in thirty years!"

"Shit, I know plenty 'bout Africa. I find out all I need to know 'bout Africa every time I go to East Oakland." It was an old joke that never failed to hit its mark.

The bonus October heat had sent everyone out into the streets in pursuit of any company to be had, and the sense of camaraderie and fun among the patrons kept the mood light. Along the curb a few waiting customers sat perched on the hoods of their cars, smoking cigarettes or reading newspapers. A few of the youngstas, unschooled in Cutty's bullet-ridden history, masked shady business deals behind the steady bump-bump of rap music.

Crowning Glory, Cutty's shop of thirty years, sat on the Oakland side of San Pablo Avenue, a dirty artery that ran from Oakland's city center all the way through six cities. It was his fifth location since incorporation. Initially his shop had been on Alcatraz Avenue, the Oakland street so named for its clear-day view of the famed Alcatraz Island. It was there, when I was seven, that my granddaddy took me for my first haircut.

When business picked up enough for Cutty to leave Alcatraz, his bad luck began in earnest. His new location on MacArthur and Broadway attracted all the hustlers and Superfly wannabes of the 1970s. Though Cutty hated to compromise his profession, he built his reputation on the mean, slick perms so favored by that generation. And as his reputation grew so did his clientele until finally, inevitably, a crosstown gangster rivalry was played out in his barber chairs.

The first casualty of Crowning Glory was Scott Hathaway, a heroin dealer with control of North, East, and West Oakland. He was slaughtered by an up-and-coming drug dealer named Jordy Prescott.

Legend has it that Hathaway's look of surprise was driven off his face by a bullet through his right eye. A quick nosedive in business confirmed that most people believed Cutty helped set up the flamboyant Hathaway. Only a new location on Shattuck Avenue and a year's worth of time brought people slowly but surely back into his shop.

The next move was caused by a retaliation shooting that occurred three blocks away, but Cutty took no chances. Before moving into the dusty San Pablo storefront, he had the property baptized by a local preacher, he installed church pews instead of seats for the waiting customers, and there hadn't been a murder since. But sometimes, through the ever-ready smile, I suspected that a cutthroat heart beat in the old man's chest. That much bad luck in one place made anybody suspect.

Memories were short, however; the boys dealing on the curb proved it. The eighties had brought a fast and furious new industry into Oakland, the crack trade, and there was evidence of it everywhere you looked.

The circus atmosphere of the drug game seeped into every aspect of urban Black life. Nothing went untouched as newfound wealth allowed men, women, and children to dream of something different. To the older cats, Michael Corleone and the crew of The Godfather supplied the props to let them dream in an elegant manner and jump the class barriers of their birth. But the rules and regulations of The Godfather became old to the youngstas even before the credits rolled. They had no time for rituals and order, just time enough to shove a big-ass foot through a door and demand the respect only a loaded gun and lots of money could bring.

Scarface was their manifesto.

It was a mess, but more seductive than anything we'd ever seen.

In 1989, the entire Bay Area, San Francisco included, fell under the 415 area code, and under that name a prison gang became a strong independent faction within the penitentiary system, eventually edging out the stronghold of the Black Guerrilla Family and keeping the Los Angeles Crips and Bloods from infiltrating the northern California crime force. The Bay Area was proud of its No Crips, No Bloods policy, but once in a while small pockets of transplanted criminals made their way into the fray, usually by way of family members, more often than not by way of good-looking women.

All that added to the big-man-on-campus swagger of the young men gathered here and there in front of Cutty's. Fellas who, a mere two years before, never rated second glances now had all the props of true hustlers, and they used every opportunity possible to flaunt them. I rode the wave as a person on the edge of the inner circle, aware all the time that the Wizard was just inside the curtain. Anyone who looked closely knew the center would not hold; the smoke and mirrors would disappear and reveal a body count to equal a homegrown war.

The unseasonable warmth pumped the festivities to a fever pitch, and all I could do was watch. The heat had an entirely different effect on my spirits. While the others laughed and joked and made plans to hit Geoffrey's, Politics, and the End Zone, I waited for what was to come.

The 90-degree temperature just weeks before Halloween threw off my alignment. It felt unnatural to my blood and, coupled with the bad dreams, left me coiled like a snake for the first sign of bad news. It was coming, I just didn't know how or when.
Nichelle D. Tramble|Author Q&A

About Nichelle D. Tramble

Nichelle D. Tramble - The Dying Ground
Nichelle D. Tramble is at work on the sequel to The Dying Ground, and lives in California and New York. This is her first novel.

Author Q&A

Q: The death tally mentioned in the book—did that really happen?

A: I dramatized this a bit for the sake of the story but I didn't stray too far from the mark. There was a gleeful but gruesome fascination with the murder rate in 19 8 9. The drug wars at the time were ferocious. There were headlines that simply stated the murder rate as it escalated but there was not a daily countdown in The Oakland Tribune.

Q: Who are some of your favorite authors?

A: I enjoy a lot of contemporary authors, mostly women. I read first novels religiously, and I've come across quite a few in the past couple of years that just blew me away. Joy Nicholson wrote Tribes of Palos Verdes, which I thought was wonderful. Maureen Gibbon's Swimming Sweet Arrow, T. Greenwood's Breathing Water, Marchlands by Karla Kuban, The Fires by Rene Steinke, and Jumping the Green by Leslie Schwartz were a few I really loved. In general I like Ashley Warlick, Kristin McCloy, Susanna Moore, Alison Moore, John Gregory Brown, Sheila Bosworth, Pat Conroy, Marita Golden, James Lee Burke, Dennis Lehane, Walter Mosley, Michael Connelly, Anne Rivers Siddons, and David Payne. I could go on forever, because there's no way to avoid Toni Morrison, F. Scott Fitzgerald, James Baldwin, Gloria Naylor, Jamaica Kincaid, Milan Kundera, Isabel Allende, Amy Tan ...

Q: In some ways this book is a bittersweet love story of Oakland. Did you grow up there? How do you feel about the city?

A: No, I didn't grow up in Oakland, but my grandparents, for a time, lived in the house on Dover Street that I use in the book. I actually grew up in Alameda, an island that borders Oakland. My first love is definitely my hometown, but I've truly been charmed by Oakland the past few years. The city has an incredibly rich history, and you can't beat the diversity. The research I did - reading about the African-American migration from the South, the growth of the city, the people, the architecture—just made me fall in love. In reading and learning about Oakland, I also learned quite a bit about my own family history, and there's still so much to be explored in both areas. More than likely all the Macco books will be set in Oakland.

Q: What inspired you to write this novel? Is mystery your favorite genre?

A: Quite honestly, I never read mysteries outside of James Lee Burke and Walter Mosley, and that's not because of genre snobbery but because I went through a huge, all-encompassing Southern literature phase that ate up years of my reading time. I was initially drawn to Burke because of the Louisiana setting, and I got hooked from there. Now I read mysteries like a fiend, one after the other, sometimes the same book twice. I also have a few favorites I would never miss, like Dennis Lehane, Michael Connelly, Burke, and Mosley.

The inspiration for Maceo's story came from a coming of age I wanted to tell that felt very thin without the mystery element. My agent suggested that I heighten the mystery and make the coming of age the secondary story, which was a wonderful suggestion. I think my first draft basically fought the natural flow of the story.

Q: Is there another Maceo Redfield mystery in the worksP Will Black Jeff make an appearance?

A: I just completed an outline detailing what has happened to all the characters since the end of The Dying Ground. Some of them haven't fared so well, I had to be honest to the arena in which they lived, but Black Jeff is alive and well-prospering actually. He was such a minor character, but he really stuck with people, so we'll definitely see him again. The new book is set in 1991—no title yet—and it involves a dethroned NBA star who returns home to Oakland to lick his wounds after being chucked from the league. Of course, he knows Holly and Maceo, and his attempts to lie low in Oakland fail dramatically, which draws Maceo into another mystery. Macco, since we last saw him, is still trying to mend fences with his family and navigate the murky waters of his manhood. Honestly, I was a little surprised myself to learn where some of the characters ended up. I had to resist the urge to tie things in a neat bow and give everyone shiny new beginnings. It's a violent world these characters inhabit, and as a result there will definitely be more casualties.

Q: You have such a giftfor creating characters. Where did that come from?

A: I think just listening to people, really enjoying the stories, quirks, and habits of others. No matter where I am, it's really hard for me to have a truly bad time. If nothing else, if I'm at a horrible party or a bad movie, or on an awful date, I always have my imagination to rescue me from any given situation. My imagination has served me well. It's sprung me from boring situations, and helped me to create characters that feel as real as my own family.



"Beautifully written with an incredible eye for decaying urban streets. Nichelle Tramble has created one of the most accurate portrayals of violence, death, and redemption in mystery fiction. This book is smart, mean, and funny as hell. Don't be the last to discover a great new writer."        
— Ace Atkins, author of Leavin' Trunk Blues and Crossroad Blues

"Friend or foe, everybody's family in this heartfelt hometown mystery, even the guy at the other end of the gun. "
—The New York Times Book Review

"Tramble's writing is multidimensional, muscular and poetic, capturing the voices of African-Americans of many ages and backgrounds without slipping into pretense or parody."
— Chicago Tribune

"The Dying Ground teems with the tinny bravado of young men too eager to prove themselves. [An] “impressive debut…[with] a pungent, streetwise sensibility that gives her novel its racing pulse.”
— The Boston Globe

"[Tramble’s] characterization of Maceo is often astonishing, the most dazzling facet of a consistently noteworthy debut. The author’s sure sense of structure, keen knowledge of male behavior and exquisite sense of pacing all contribute to this novel’s overall excellence. I read it fast, and I was sorry when the last page appeared….”
— The Washington Post

"A pulse-pounding urban thriller that keeps the mystery intact, refusing to show its hand until the final pages. Tramble proves herself an unpretentious poet whose sense of the inner city, its argot and its inhabitants is almost romantic—and certainly vivid. The story is … infused with immense passion and new, true grit by this remarkable young novelist..."
— Philadelphia Weekly

“Mysteries are the urban fiction; nothing else so catches up the furies and fantasies of our cities. In The Dying Ground, Nichelle Tramble turns out Oakland's ragged, depleted pockets — and hands us gold. I welcome a strong new writer.”—James Sallis, author of Eye of the Cricket
Reader's Guide|Discussion Questions

About the Book

The questions and discussion topics that follow are intended to enhance your group's reading of Nichelle D. Tramble's The Dying Ground. We hope they will provide fresh insights and ways of looking at this exciting new novel.

Discussion Guides

1. The Oakland of Daddy Al's youth is much different than that of his old age; the opportunity that drew him to the West has been replaced with a drug-fueled violence. Yet in some sense, the freedom and hope of old Oakland still exists in the illicit world of drugs. How does the younger generation appropriate and transform this spirit? What is the response of Daddy Al's generation to this change?

2. Like many places where the law ceases to have meaning, Oakland, and its young in particular, relies on an alternate, unspoken idea of morality and honor. Describe this code of ethics. What are the rules? Do they differ between the drug world and the larger community? What are the contradictions between these rules and the law?

3. When Daddy Al tells Maceo about the tragic life and death of his first wife, Elizabeth, what is he saying about his idea of justice? About its redemptive power? Is this a warning to Maceo?

4. Maceo's large, close-knit family nurtured him from birth and provided a substitute family for many of his friends. Despite the strength of this family relationship, the ghost of Maceo's mother and father seem to exert an equally strong influence on him. What is this legacy? How does it affect him? How are Holly and Felicia affected by the mistakes of their parents?

5. Maceo's vivid dreams haunt him throughout the book; they function as premonitions as well as expressions of his true fears. It seems as if Maceo is wrestling his demons in these dreams, and it is here that we encounter Maceo's father and Billy Crane. What do these dreams tell us about Maceo? About his fears? His guilt?

6. As outsiders and insiders to Oakland, Alixe and Felicia are near opposites, yet they represent Maceo's twin desires. "Alixe was what I wanted waiting for me on the other side, but I needed Felicia." What is Felicia's role in Maceo's life? What is Alixe's? How does Alixe view Maceo's world?

7. Despite the violence surrounding them, the residents of Oakland maintain a remarkable sense of community, as witnessed in Cutty's barbershop and during Billy Crane's funeral. Are these scenes realistic? Discuss how humor is used and expressed in this community.

8. Maceo and Holly view their participation in "the game" less as a choice than as a result of their personal history. Maceo claims he was "born in death," and both men carry the sins of their parents close to their hearts. It is as if their parents and surroundings have created a future in which they have little choice. Discuss this notion of fate. Is it valid? How does it shape their decisions? Does it cause them to disregard the consequences of their actions?

9. Scottie, Maceo, and Daddy Al represent three generations of Oakland males; both of the men play the role of father figure — Daddy Al to Maceo and Maceo to Scottie. How do these relationships work? Is there any disappointment within them? What is each man teaching the younger?

10. For most of the book we see Felicia only through the eyes of others; how does Maceo's characterization of her differ from reality? After she returns to Oakland to avenge Billy's death, Felicia's brother accuses her of following the horrifying example of their father. Do you think this is true? How does she arrive at her startling, heartrending solution to Billy's death? Are her actions justified?

11. The Dying Ground charts Maceo's journey from the fringes of violence to its very center. He struggles to make this transition on his own terms, trying to stay true to the disparate beliefs of his family and friends. Is he successful? Does his love for and allegiance to Felicia redeem him? What does the future hold for him?

12. "From memory my gut knew that it would all disappear one way or another, and it had, one by one.... Some of the loss was my own doing, I couldn't argue that, but it all stemmed from the same place ... drugs." Tramble writes with a sense of ambivalence toward the Oakland drug world; she acknowledges its devastating effects but respects its power. The character of Alixe best reflects this view. What is her assessment of Oakland? Are there any heroes in this story? Do we, as readers, come to understand them?

13. "When you will survive if you fight quickly and perish if you do not, this is called the dying ground' (Sun Tzu). Explain Tramble's use of this quote in her title. What does it say about Oakland and its future?

14. "When you will survive if you fight quickly and perish if you do not, this is called the dying ground' (Sun Tzu). Explain Tramble's use of this quote in her title. What does it say about Oakland and its future?

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