Five Books That Inspired Harlem After Midnight
By Louise HareAugust 24, 2023
When I wrote the first in the Canary Club Mysteries series, Miss Aldridge Regrets, I wasn’t expecting to write a sequel. At the end of that book, my heroine, Lena Aldridge has just arrived in New York. When I was asked to write another story featuring her, it made sense to find out what happens to her next. And Harlem is exactly where Lena, a biracial woman with an urge to seek out her family history and figure out her own identity, would go.
Here are five books that I revisited when thinking about Lena’s adventures in Harlem. Whether set in New York or just capturing a little of the atmosphere I hoped to create in my own novel, these are novels that are lauded for good reason.
Passing – Nella Larsen
Lena Aldridge is light skinned enough to pass but she arrives in Harlem determined not to deny her heritage any longer. Of course, I had to include a nod to Passing in Harlem After Midnight. I love Larsen’s book because it shows two sides of a coin. Irene is firmly part of the Harlem elite, proud of her roots. And Clare is the opposite, living as a white woman with a white husband who is openly racist. A tragic and fascinating story.
The Street – Ann Petry
I love character led stories and Petry shows all aspects of the colourful cast of her novel. Lutie is the protagonist, a single mother after leaving her cheating husband and taking her eight-year-old to set up a new home in Harlem. From the creepy building superintendent who lusts after Lutie to the predatory bandleader who offers to help Lutie’s fledgling singing career, the sense of dread grows ever stronger as the novel progresses.
Another Country – James Baldwin
My heroine Lena is a jazz singer and I love books that understand music and how it can evoke a certain atmosphere. Another Country is my favourite of Baldwin’s books, for the music but also for the community he portrays. It’s a novel that has its fair share of violence and tragedy but what I revisit it for is the friendship and love that is shown through the diverse group of friends that Baldwin brings to life on its pages. It’s a novel that I recommend to everyone and have given as a gift to several friends because I love it so much.
Devil in a Blue Dress – Walter Mosley
Harlem After Midnight certainly isn’t a hardboiled murder mystery in the way that this classic is. It’s also set in LA rather than New York. What I enjoy about it so much is the characters, but also, I wanted to figure out what makes an archetypal femme fatale. In Devil, ‘Easy’ Rawlins is offered a job: to find a young white woman named Daphne Monet who is known to hang out in African American bars. Often the traditional ‘femme fatale’ feels like a character who is mostly there to be objectified by the more complex male characters. With Daphne Monet, there’s something more to her. Lena meets her version of a femme fatale, Bel Bennett, in Harlem, but without the male gaze I wanted to understand how to show this trope in a different way.
The Axeman’s Jazz – Ray Celestin
In this first instalment of a quartet of novels, inspired by a true story, teenager Ida Davis and her friend Louis Armstrong, have stumbled into the case of the Axeman, a serial killer haunting New Orleans. They’re not the only people on the hunt for the murderer, but Ida is the character who most grabs my attention in this novel. A secretary for the Pinkerton Detective Agency, with aspirations to become a detective herself, Ida becomes the common thread of these four books that span from New Orleans in 1919 to LA in the 1960s. Biracial, often having to push against the conventions of society and friends with the great Louis Armstrong since childhood, she’s an unforgettable character.