February is Black History Month, which started as an American observance but is and should be gaining international momentum. In honour of this, I would like to draw attention to some important black crime fiction writers, and in a later post to some important black LGBTQ+ people.
Crime fiction is, as we know, important for reflecting ethical questions as well as social details in the contexts that produce and consume it. Since time immemorial the question of marginalisation has been key to crime fiction, and ‘outsider’ detectives have proven almost as popular as ‘establishment’ villains. But from the nineteenth century to the twenty-first, the best-known crime writers have tended to be middle-class and white. This is a diverse list of writers and recommendations, which I hope represents a spectrum of crime fiction.
Rudolph Fisher (1897-1934) is notable as a ‘golden age’ (though American) black detective writer, with a black detective hero. A high-achieving academic and major figure in the Harlem renaissance, Fisher wrote satirically about the strangeness of structural racism in early twentieth-century America. His only detective novel, The Conjure-Man Dies (1932) was highly acclaimed by those reviewers who would touch it. Over at Only Detect, the book is described as a ‘landmark novel’ and ‘a suggestive fable about the meaning of blackness’ (michaelslind: 1). Please note I am unfamiliar with Rudolph Fisher and his work. Thanks to Douglas Greene for drawing my attention to him.
Eleanor Taylor Bland (1944-2010) was, by all accounts, remarkable. An African-American accountant who married into the U.S. navy, she was diagnosed with a terminal illness in the early 1970s, but continued to have multiple careers and a rich personal life for decades. More personal than most, her detective fiction looks forward to a multi-ethnic America that has overcome racism and sexism. An interesting ‘Voices from the Gaps’ piece for the University of Minnesotta links Bland’s desire to have ‘minorities […] centre stage’ (Bland, quoted) to the complex human relationships in the books and the presentation of ‘human perfection [as] a myth’ (Boentje and Puhek: 1). Read Scream in Silence (2000). Complicated police officer Marti MacAlister is married and trying to adjust to family life. But she is also looking for a suburban sociopathic arsonist. And there are bodies. Of-its-time exploration of mental illness with additional themes.
Walter Mosley (1952- ), the best-known writer on this list, is famous for his hardboiled novels featuring P.I. Easy Rawlins. According to Wikipedia, he has also written science fiction, erotica, and a graphic novel – which is unsurprising. The books use noir conventions to explore the opportunities for and silencing of black self-expression in mid-century America. Rawlins exists because, in his creator’s words American fiction features ‘black male protagonists and black male supporting characters, but nobody else writes about black male heroes’ (Neuman: 4). Read: Devil in a Blue Dress (1990 debut). Cleverly subverts the subversive with its unflinching presentation of corruption. In post-Second World War Los Angeles, Easy Rawlins is offered $100 by a white-suited white man called Albright. He ends up underground where people are real, and above board where nothing is real but money and blood.
Dreda Say Mitchell (1965- ) is a British crime novelist with whose work I am sadly unfamiliar. However I intend to change this post-haste: Mitchell has received multiple prestigious awards and has a social conscience. In addition to publishing five crime novels, Say works as an education consultant, with a stated ‘passion for raising the life chances for all working-class children’ (Mitchell: 1). Reviewers have highlighted complex plotting and ‘East End gangster grit’ while class and gender are also clear themes. Mitchell’s latest novel is Vendetta (2014).
Kwei Quartey is a practising physician, originally from Ghana, whose fourth crime novel will be published later this year. He is often, patronisingly, compared to Alexander McCall Smith, although I can’t see it. Quartey has said, ‘I want Ghana to be the new Sweden’ (Musiitwa: 1), and like the so-called Nordic writers he highlights specific national community issues in each novel: homelessness, oil, gold-digging. The books also introduce some words and phrases, with a glossary. Read Wife of the Gods (2009 debut). Introduces multilingual and multi-layered detective Darko Dawson. Traditional but rational, he leaves the capital city of Accra to investigate a death in a small community, where tensions between the supernatural and the rational rise to the surface.
Unity Dow belongs in a different category. She is a high court judge and human rights activist from Botswana who has been awarded the Légion d’honneur. Her fiction is about crime in a big, important sense. She writes about urgent social issues in an informed, slightly flowery but harrowing way. The books explore what is wrong and what needs to change, from poverty to rape to AIDS in contemporary Africa. National and personal stories intersect throughout each novel. Read: Far and Beyon’ (2001). Dow’s second novel, which deals with AIDS and communication between divided communities in Botswana. The theme of magic is tied up with the question of truth. Gravestones keep appearing, as does the strange sanctity of physical contact between two human beings.
I don’t want to talk too much here, being painfully aware of the lack of voice and exposure that writers of colour get. I should mention George Baxt (1923-2003), a (white, male) crime writer whose black gay detective Pharaoh Love first appears in A Queer Kind of Death (1966). Like Lou Rand’s The Gay Detective (1960), it’s an overrated book. There are two major anthologies devoted to specifically African-American crime writers. One is edited by Otto Penzler and the other is edited by Eleanor Taylor Bland.
Boentje, Jennifer & Puhek, Christen, ‘Eleanor Taylor Bland’ (5 Jul. 2002), Voices from the Gaps (University of Minnesota). http://voices.cla.umn.edu/artistpages/blandEleanor.php
michaelslind, ‘RUDOLPH FISHER. The Conjure Man Dies. 1932’ (24 Dec. 2010), Only Detect. https://onlydetect.wordpress.com/2010/12/24/rudolph-fisher-the-conjure-man-dies-1932/
Mitchell, Dreda Say. ‘About’ (n.d.), Dreda Say Mitchell. http://www.dredamitchell.co.uk/about.html
Musiitwa, Daniel. ‘Meet Kwei Quartey, Physician and Award Winning Crime Fiction Writer’ (1 Feb. 2015), Africa Book Club. http://www.africabookclub.com/?p=16357
Neumann, Johanna. ‘The Curious Case of Walter Mosley’ (Sep. 2010), Moment. http://www.momentmag.com/the-curious-case-of-walter-mosley/