Leon Thomas should be a star. As it stands now, he is a character in a novel called "The Landing," so the only way to make him into a star is to make a movie out of this book.
Don't get me wrong. The book holds up on its own. In fact, Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan was not exaggerating when he said, "Haynes Johnson and Howard Simons probably think they have written a spy novel. Not a bit. They have written an extraordinary history of the most dangerous moment our nation has known in this century. Never mind that it is fascinating: it has to be read."
To that I add, it should be seen.
By turning this book into a movie, Hollywood could break new ground in what so far has been the dismal portrayal of black people.
Until "The Landing," I had never read a book that was able to deal with the black people in Washington, unless that book was exclusively about blacks in Washington. Now we have what is ostensibly a spy novel where, unlike science fiction, black people fit in, have major roles, in fact, set the tone for the Washington scene.
Thus we are introduced to Detective Sgt. Leon Thomas, 38, 6 foot 3, "his big hands hanging loosely at his sides, his coal-black face, so ebony in color it had a burnished bluish sheen, showing no sign of emotion."
The white homicide detectives on the D.C. police department do not want Thomas, whose speciality is vice, on the murder case of Amos Knight, who is "the seventh colored man shot to death in the back of the head at dusk in the District of Columbia since the heat wave began three weeks ago."
It is summer 1942, and one of the marvelous things about this book is that it includes incidents that really happened, such as the shooting spree on blacks. That the few "colored" cops who were on the police force back then are hated by white cops adds to the tapestry of racial tension.
"What you doin' here, Thomas?" the redneck Detective Lt. Kenneth Johnson drawls. "No vice here. No clap, no con, no corn."
"I know that," says Thomas.
"You don't know enough to stay away from something that's none of your business, Thomas?"
"No. I guess not, Lieutenant."
Needless to say, this "attitude" gets Thomas into more trouble with his "superiors," but it also takes him into the heart of a Nazi conspiracy to assassinate President Franklin D. Roosevelt in Washington
It is the first time that a black policeman has been given a Don Johnson-style role: having the brains as well as style, not just a gun and a big mouth. It has been a long time since a black man has been portrayed with the same complexity as his white counterparts and one of the few times that a black man has been pitted against evil and, in the end, had his principles stand tall.
Of course, the novel is not just about Thomas. It is about Washington at war. The fact that it is based on research about a true-to-life episode in which the Nazis sent saboteurs to Washington gives it an ever-present ring of reality. There is a character named Henry Eaton, a government investigator, who is an upper-class WASP, and another named Constance Aiken, a southern belle working for the FBI. Together with Thomas, they stand in the way of the Nazi plot, which is attempted by two of the most ruthless characters ever portrayed.
In the past, most endeavors of this sort have treated blacks as background fixtures: servants, chauffeurs, flunky cops and comedians. In movies and television shows, they were often edited out all together.
But blacks have been written into "The Landing" in such a way that they cannot be edited out, any more than blacks could be edited out of American history. They are presented not as side-show attractions, but as forces to be reckoned with. Thoughts and movement are revealed with such insight and clarity that the characters come alive on the page.
In fact, the book flows so much like a movie that it would be hard for a screenwriter or director to mess it up.