On Books: The Many Colors of Crime

By Gary Phillips Jun 10, 1998

"I got news for you, I thought. I started out to write a detective story when I wrote that novel, but I couldn’t name the white man who was guilty because all white men were guilty.”
– Chester Himes, My Life of Absurdity: The Later Years

Who gets killed in America? Why? And who pays?

These themes are central to the lives of people of color and the disenfranchised in this country, and no literary form is more conducive to delving into these questions than the mystery and crime novel.

From Michael Nava’s gay criminal lawyer Henry Rios to Sujata Massey’s Tokyo-based English teacher Rei Shimura, the mystery genre is bursting with writers of color who tackle what Raymond Chandler called “the simple art of murder.”

In the process, these writers not only expose the links between death and the institutional sanctions of such deaths, but map the racial dimensions of crime and punishment. These authors’ literary figures must navigate this chaotic world as it impacts upon communities of color, and deal with the many personalities and places that make up these communities.

The Forerunners

Many think Chester Himes was the first African American to craft mystery fiction. Much like a noir tale featuring a down-and-out writer in a 1950s paperback original, Himes only took to doing detective novels because his previous non-genre novels, although critically praised, had left him broke in Paris. At the suggestion of his editor, he studied the work of Chandler, Dashiell Hammett and Peter Cheyney, then created something all his own in his series featuring Harlem detectives, acid-scarred Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones.

Others may cite Harlem Renaissance writer Dr. Rudolph Fisher as the first African American to publish a mystery novel. In 1932’s The Conjure Man Dies: A Tale of Dark Harlem, Fisher set Dr. John Archer and plainclothes Harlem detective Perry Dart loose to solve the murder of a supposed conjure-man named Frimbo.

However, the rightful heir to the title of first is Pauline E. Hopkins, an African American woman who wrote plays, novels and journalistic pieces. In 1900, her “Talma Gordon” was published in the Colored American Magazine, the first black journal established in the 20th century. This “locked room” mystery pivoted on the fact that Talma, a mulatto woman, passed for white. Hopkins used this as a way to comment on society’s perceptions of race and class.

Who’s Got the Power?
The black private investigator (PI) is the double outsider. The private investigator trope, a descendent of the mythological 1870s cowboy persona (the template modernized in Hammett’s Continental Op stories of the ‘20s and ‘30s), is removed from society, and thus its observer. African American PIs, and other minorities and often women PIs, are often unable to navigate unfettered through certain spheres of society not simply because they are not the law, and thus backed by the power of the state, but because they are also frozen out because of their color or gender.

Power relations, so central to crime and punishment, are one more barrier the PI must confront. The protagonists must come to grips with the contradictions of exclusion in this bourgeois democracy.

Mystery writers of color such as Walter Mosley, Gar Haywood and Valerie Wilson Wesley skillfully explicate who the criminal justice system works for, and who it works against. The role of the investigator in these books is to be the arbiter for African Americans of the underclass who too often find themselves caught up in the grinding gears of “the system.”

People of color live in a dangerous world, fraught with anger which too often erupts in death.

Witness this passage of Wesley’s Tamara Hayle (a former cop turned private eye) in When Death Comes Stealing. “They, my brethren in blue, pulled them over because of the speed, they said, to a side street off the road, and got nasty when Marvin gave them some lip. They bloodied his nose for being a ‘smart-ass nigger’ then knocked him around for good measure and asked if ‘anybody else wanted some.’”

This is the world Hayle and Gunner and Rawlins know, a world of racist cops and cover-ups, not the extremist fantasy of someone like Mike Hammer, the crypto-fascist Cold War era PI creation of Mickey Spillane who salivated gleefully in One Lonely Night because he’d just killed some commies.

Who’s Knocking at the Door?
More women and people of color entering the mystery field has certainly broadened the genre beyond the guys with a gat and a hat.

In Lucha Corpi’s 1992 Eulogy for a Brown Angel, racial politics from a Chicana perspective are played out, exploring a facet of Los Angeles beyond what white writers like Chandler and Ross Macdonald wrote or knew about. In this book the new territory is East L.A. The plot is set in motion with a heinous crime dating back to the Chicano Moratorium in 1970.

Unlike Macdonald’s Lew Archer, who dispassionately dug up familial history and sin, Corpi’s Damasco investigates, but is also part of her community’s history. In fact, it is she and her friend who find the body of a child that haunts her from the days of the Moratorium to the present.

Different realities surface in writers of color’s books. Take this ironic bit from Manuel Ramos’ The Ballad of Gato Guerrero. His civil rights lawyer/protagonist Luis Montez is at a diner, working off a hangover. He notes a couple’s conversation.

    Frank studied the menu:
    “Say, is this the Casita or Don Juan’s or what? Everything changes, always changing. Sheesh, can’t keep up sometimes. Two coffees senior-eeta. Two coffees.”

    After the waitress left, Frank whispered to Joan, “Need to speak Spanish to get through to these people.”

    “Right, Frank, I keep forgettin’ you’re bilingual.”

Similarly, in Farewell, My Lovely, Chandler’s white L.A. private eye Philip Marlowe observes, “It was one of those mixed blocks over on Central Avenue, the blocks that are not yet all Negro.” By contrast, Mosley’s black L.A. unlicensed private eye Easy Rawlins comments in the first line of Devil in a Blue Dress, “I was surprised to see a white man walk into Joppy’s bar.” Here Mosley subverts what Chandler wrote fifty years previous, giving it a Rashoman-like feel, and underscoring the point that life looks different from the other side of the color line.

Various other social issues get a work out in mystery novels. For example, light versus dark complected black schisms, and how these notions intersect class, are tackled by BarbaraNeely’s snooping maid Blanche in Blanche Among the Talented Tenth. Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski runs up against abortion clinic bombings in Bitter Medicine. And Roger Simon’s ex-hippie Jewish PI Moses Wine investigates the assassination of an Orange County Palestinian activist in Raising the Dead.

The Underground
Gangster capitalism has also produced its chroniclers. Ex-convict Nathan Heard gave us such unforgiving work as Howard Street and House of Slammers. And in Daddy Cool and his other subterranean work (some 10 million paperback books in print according to publisher Holloway House), the former thief Donald Goines gives readers a glimpse of a world of amoral hit men, inner city gangsters, drug fiends, murderous pimps and racist cops.

Goines was writing in a black pulp tradition started by ‘50s African American writers such as Clarence Cooper, Jr. in The Scene, and Herbert Simmons’ Corner Boy. Their work is the flip side of writers like Jim Thompson whose novels featured white grifters, hustlers and psychos.

Goines, like Himes, began writing in prison. But unlike Himes, his writing did not redeem. Upon his release, and after the publication of his semi-autobiographical Whoreson, Goines wrote like a man with little time left, turning out eight books a year at one point. Goines’ output was tremendous, especially given he maintained his heroin habit at the same time. He was shot execution style in his home in 1974.

Above Ground
Back in the 9 to 5 world, Dale Furutani may be the first Asian American man to publish a mystery novel with an Asian protagonist. (Mr. Moto, Charlie Chan, and Judge Dee were the creations of white writers.) Furutani’s award-winning Death in Little Tokyo and the Toyotomi Blades came out in the late ‘90s and feature L.A. Japanese American PI — and laid off aerospace engineer — Ken Tanaka. Interestingly, Leslie Charteris, creator of the infamous Saint in the 1920s, was born Leslie Yin in Singapore in 1907.

Native Americans have also contributed to the mystery genre. Martin Cruz Smith, famous for his Gorky Park which features a white Soviet cop, is Native American. He has written a thriller/horror book, Nightwings, with Native characters. The most prolific mystery writer centering on Native peoples, Tony Hillerman, is white; he grew up with American Indians in Oklahoma.

People of color live in a dangerous world, fraught with anger which too often erupts in death. Murder is the number one cause of death among young black men in this country. Insult and injury are often from the hands of each other and the official guardians of public safety.

From Rudolfo Anaya’s Sonny Baca to Charlotte Carter’s be-bop mystery featuring street musician Nanette, mystery and crime novels reflect upon those who are guilty — the individuals and the societal institutions — that are the cause of death. And they give us great entertainment in the process! 

Gary Phillips will have his third mystery novel — Bad Night is Falling — out in July.