When I first read the pitch for Edward M. Erdelac’s Conquer, I was understandably skeptical: the book is a collection of shorts centered on occult detective John Conquer written through the lens of Blaxploitation cinema. It would be very easy for the author to slip too far into racist stereotypes and, frankly, I think a lot of other writers would have handled the material terribly. Luckily, Erdelac navigates the territory gracefully and with a tangible appreciation, even reverence, for not only the material he is paying homage to, but to the cultural underpinnings that contributed to those tropes. Do keep in mind that I’m a white guy writing about a book that is entirely based on Blaxploitation, so take what I have to say worth a grain of salt.
With that out of the way, I think this book is brilliant. This is ostensibly a short story collection combining previously published pieces from Occult Detective Quarterly with a handful of new stories, but the recurring characters and the flow of it all feel more like a novel composed of vignettes.
Conquer is a pitch-perfect send up to blaxploitation: it nails the setting, attitude, and character tropes of that movement but ditches a lot of the negative baggage that went along with it– Conquer hates pimps, and his former gang affiliations are not lauded, they’re simply a part of his character. It’s strange, but Conquer is written both as a traditional blaxploitation hero (think Shaft, Dolemite, early Blade) and as a more mature, dynamic, altogether more modern protagonist.
We’re introduced to the character with the very brief Who the Hell is John Conquer, a tone piece that features a wise-cracking bartender who gives a Harlem newcomer an almost obligatory combination of wise-cracking and a hyperbolic rundown of Conquer’s supernatural exploits. This feels very Rudy Ray Moore, and it couldn’t frame the book better, as just after the old man finishes rhapsodizing about Conquer the man himself stands up and declares the barkeep’s stories bullshit before making his exit.
As the book develops this becomes part of what makes Conquer such a likable and dynamic protagonist: he isn’t usually pinning the tropes on himself, he’s actually a pretty modest guy who’s being talked up by the people around him and his preceding reputation. That iconic sense of slick and cool feels a lot more natural on him because the larger than life reputation he’s gathered is not one he’s actively building around himself.
I do feel obligated to include a content warning for those who are sensitive to sexual violence– there’s one story in particular which deals heavily with rape. The topic is not depicted lightly or in an inappropriate manner. The crime that acts as a catalyst is incredibly heinous, and the story actually has a lot to do with the cyclical trauma and violence related to sex crimes. Additionally, there’s some commentary on male victims of sexual assault and the stigmas therein which is a welcome addition to the book.
All told, I found Conquer nearly perfect and I can’t wait to see more of the character. I imagine that in a few years John Conquer could be another giant in the occult detective world a la Harry Dresden, Repairman Jack, and the like, and I’m all here for it.
Rating 10 out of 10 Hands of Glory