Roundup of Black Detective Novels from Then Until Now
By Tracy ClarkJune 29, 2021
There have been black writers writing black detectives since the beginning of the 20th century. There were black Holmes’ and black Marlowes and black Marples, policemen, amateur sleuths, and private eyes, coexisting with their “mainstream” counterparts almost since the beginning of modern crime fiction, but they were ignored, unseen, unpublished.
These black writers, these pioneers, did the heavy lifting. Looking at their contributions figuratively, they could be said to have planned the house, mixed the concrete, and laid the foundation. Those who came after them built the walls and set the windows, moved in the furniture. My contemporaries and I have it easy in comparison. All we have to do is stand guard over the house, keep it safe and sound for those who come after us.
This house is our legacy, our inheritance.
Those early black writers wrote characters that looked like them, talked like them, lived where they lived, shared the same experiences at a time when the world saw little value in the telling. Their stories plumbing the depths of the black experience, offering striking commentary on race, community, prejudice, justice, and the African Americans’ place in a changing world, and the stories languished in obscurity.
Writers like Pauline E. Hopkins, Rudolph Fisher, and John Edward Bruce, and others, wrote fiction about black people for black people for small black magazines, since none had the slightest chance of being published by white publishers. Hopkins’ novel Hagar’s Daughter was published in 1901. John Edward Bruce wrote The Black Sleuth in 1907. Fisher wrote The Conjure Man Dies in 1932. There were others. In 1946, Ann Petry’s The Street was published. Though not a mystery, it is well worth noting that it was the first novel by an African American woman to sell more than a million copies.
Chester Himes, often credited as being the founder of the modern black genre, came along in 1957 with his Harlem cycle debut A Rage in Harlem, featuring a pair of black NYPD detectives, Grave Digger Jones a Coffin Ed Johnson. Again, books that explored the issues of race, politics, prejudice, systemic disenfranchisement, and crime from the perspective of those who have had to bear the brunt of it.
If you’re looking for an education, a truly interesting one, go back, dig these treasures out, find more.
I found the black detective in the ’90s. Up until then, I had gotten my detective fiction like most readers got theirs with Chandler and Hammett, Conan Doyle, Christie, et al. But the ’90s. Boy, the ’90s kicked things up a notch.
We got Walter Mosley’s Devil in a Blue Dress in 1990. After that it was as if a giant floodgate opened and a rush of black talent came crashing through—Gary Phillips, Barbara Neely, Eleanor Taylor Bland, Paula L. Woods, Penny Mickelbury, Hugh Holton, Grace F. Edwards, Valerie Wilson Wesley. Whew.
It was on. For a newbie writer of color wanting to write mysteries about characters of color—yet having no idea where to start—having these writers to read and learn from was a godsend. I already had a main character in mind, a black woman PI, who had been lurking around in my brain for years. I could hear her voice, see her clearly. She waited patiently as half-formed scenes played on an endless loop in my head night and day, until finally, I got brave enough to put her on the page and test her out. That character became Cass Raines, the protagonist in my PI Chicago mystery series. Writing her didn’t get any easier just because I had this great North Star of talent to light my way, but at least I knew the end game (publication) was possible for me because others had done it. So, I wrote a lot, thought a lot, read a lot. I read anything and everything, failing far more than I succeeded, but I kept writing.
I read Hugh Holton’s Larry Cole series. Set in Chicago, Cole was an African American homicide cop with the Chicago Police Department. What was great about the series was that Holton, a real-life police commander in the CPD, brought his intricate knowledge of police work to the page so that Cole could walk the streets of Chicago like he paid for them with his own money. What was also great was that Holton knew Chicago and described its grittier side in such vivid detail that you could almost smell the rotting garbage in the alleys. Sights, smells, feels, sounds, all of it is needed to engage a reader. Where a character hangs out is just as important as who that character is, and setting done well enriches everything. I began learning that lesson with Holton.
All along my writer’s journey, the path has been littered with diamonds. I devoured Valerie Wilson Wesley’s Tamara Hayle series. Hayle, a black woman PI in Newark, N.J., was divorced, the mother of a son, trying to make a living in a dangerous field. As with the black writers of decades past, Wilson Wesley brought in community and family, commented on justice and race. Hayle’s journey was about more than the case she was on, it was about her life, her place in the world, and how the world saw her.
The same held for Paula L. Woods’ Charlotte Justice, an LAPD detective with a painful past, working in a turbulent city; Eleanor Taylor Bland’s Marti MacAllister, a transfer from Chicago PD to smalltown Lincoln Prairie after the tragic murder of her cop husband, and Barbara Neely’s Blanche White. Though White was an amateur sleuth, a domestic in a rich family’s North Carolina home, Neely brought the receipts. Blanche had truths to tell, knowledge to dispense… and then she solved the crime and got back to whatever else she had going on.
And then there was Mali Anderson, written by Grace F. Edwards. Anderson was a black woman, an ex-cop turned sleuth. Edwards gave us a wonderfully rich character in Mali, and then tossed in Harlem, cool jazz, and intelligence just to gild the lily. I thought a lot about Edwards as I flailed around in those early years in search of a plot and a voice. She was inspirational. Edwards didn’t publish her first book until she was 55. Book one in her Mali Anderson series, If I Should Die, was published in 1997 when she was 64. Persistence. Persistence. Persistence.
Black writers writing black detectives are here today because others got there first. There would be no Cass Raines without a Grave Digger Jones, no Dayna Anderson without Tamara Hayle. We might also have been denied the excellent work of Cheryl Head, Rachel Howzell Hall, and Delia Pitts and their black detectives Charlie Mack, Grayson Sykes, SJ Rook. Each could very easily join the ranks of Easy Rawlins, Ivan Monk, and Larry Cole.
There are so many wonderful writers out there now and so many interesting black detectives—Det. Raven Burns in Faye Snowden’s A Killing Fire, Det. RJ Franklin in VM Burns’ Travellin’ Shoes.
The stories these writers are telling are the stories of our country, our people, our history, our lives. Their voices are strong, their contributions invaluable. Fiction is fiction but it can be more than make-believe. A book can be a window to our souls, our humanity, our past, our future. We learn about ourselves and others through books. Books can guide us and better us. They can teach, enlighten, illuminate. And they can inspire the next generation of writers, which is something I hope all our books accomplish.
I am happy a little kid of color today can pick up a book and see themselves on the page. I am proud that my contemporaries and I have contributed to that reality to some degree. We all proudly stand on talented shoulders, fully aware that we’re doing it, and I cannot wait for the next writer of color to come along and stand on ours.
Meanwhile, we’re watching the house.
About Runner by Tracy Clark:
Chicago in the dead of winter can be brutal, especially when you’re scouring the frigid streets for a missing girl. Fifteen-year-old Ramona Titus has run away from her foster home. Her biological mother, Leesa Evans, is a recovering addict who admits she failed Ramona often in the past. But now she’s clean. And she’s determined to make up for her mistakes–if Cass can only help her find her daughter.
Cass visits Ramona’s foster mother, Deloris Poole, who is also desperate to bring the girl home. Ramona came to Deloris six months ago, angry and distrustful, but was slowly opening up. The police are on the search, but Cass has sources closer to the streets, and a network of savvy allies. Yet it seems Ramona doesn’t want to be found. And Cass soon begins to understand why.
Ramona is holding secrets dark enough to kill for, and anyone who helps her may be fair game. And if Ramona can’t run fast enough and hide well enough to keep the truth safe, she and Cass may both be out of time.