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The mysteries of Black writers


The detective is arguably as much a cultural icon as the cowboy in the pantheon of American mythology. The offspring of myriad traditions both home-grown and abroad, the detective matured in the wake of the Depression by writers voicing the public’s erosion of faith in the established institutions meant to bind the fabric of society.

As with most modes of artistic expression, African American scribes penned their own stories influenced by their particular experiences in much the same way as the Jazz and Blues music being crafted during the early 20th century. Writers making these first, fledgling steps were the Jamaican W. Adolphe Roberts, who published the 1926 mystery “The Haunting Hand,” and physician-turned-novelist Rudolph Fisher, who introduced the first Black detective and was also a contributor to the Harlem Renaissance.

Many of these thrillers came to be known collectively as “hard-boiled,” containing copious amounts of violence and the occasional seasoning of sex.

Over time, an offshoot of this genre evolved called noir [French for black] fiction, which added an aura of fatalistic gloom to its basic foundation of carnage, crime and sex. Los Angeles writer Gary Phillips, a contemporary standard bearer of this tradition, explains the central figures of these tales:

“By definition a noir hero or antihero, most often, is a doomed character. It’s a man or woman who wants something, obsesses on some person or thing like a certain amount of money, and will do crooked things to get what they want. They don’t necessarily see themselves as a villain, but are consumed by their desire. The hard-boiled detective seeks justice, often on a small scale.”

Either in celluloid or print, these protagonists stand out because they are likely to be on either side of the law. The focal point of the story may generally be of a criminal nature, but the personalities hovering around it can come from myriad walks of life. The central character is often an opportunistic hustler, the hapless drifter, the combat- hardened service man making awkward attempts to fit back into civilian life, a newspaper reporter peripheral to the nefarious events, a victim of circumstance, or perhaps the most time-worn noir cliché, the private investigator.

The writing was cross-fertilized by the comparatively new medium of film, especially detective thrillers featuring the likes of George Raft and Edward G. Robinson, and augmented by the skills of European filmmakers uprooted by the Nazi menace sweeping their homeland. These artisans came to Hollywood steeped in the tradition of German Expressionism, manifested by the odd camera angles, ominous lighting and shadows, and other visual cues that added to the dark and brooding atmosphere distinctive of motion pictures from this era.

The genre was boosted by the end of World War II, which gave French critics the chance to once again enjoy the Hollywood movies denied them. Enamored of the radical stylistic departure from previous American pictures, these critics coined a name for these dark representations of society’s underbelly: “black film,” which in translation is film noir.

The style of these films, in sharp contrast to the comparatively optimistic aura projected by postwar movies, struck a cord with the French still reeling from the carnage of the World War.
Just as the literary and cinematic forms cross-fertilized each other, both sides of the Atlantic influenced each other, abetted by the relocation of African American artists, entertainers, and writers who emulated their Jewish counterparts of postwar period by trading the Jim Crow environs of their homeland for a more hospitable setting in Europe.

Abstract violence and the Harlem Cycle

“Her hips were pitching like a rowboat on a stormy sea, but her cold, aloof face said: Your eyes may shine and your teeth may grit, but none of this fine ass will you git.”–“Cotton Comes to Harlem” (1965) by Chester Himes.

Although he spent time in Hollywood as an underused screenwriter, Chester Himes is not normally associated with Los Angeles. Nonetheless, he deserves inclusion because of his stature as the first prolific writer of color in the detective genre. Himes’ childhood was shaped-or misshapen, by his overbearing light-skinned mother’s domination of her darker-complexioned husband. Most of the femme fatales that populate his crime fiction are thusly “high-yaller” sexpots of ambiguous morality, characters to be desired, feared, and fitting neatly into the archetype of the noir femme fatale.

Born into bourgeois comfort, Himes’ naturally rebellious nature still got him thrown out of Ohio State University after one semester, and incarceration at a Ohio penitentiary for armed robbery at the age of 19. His new writing career, shaped by the perilous sway of his environment, gained a measure of success with the publication of several short stories, including in Esquire, in 1934.

Released on a reduced sentence in 1937, Himes pursued his craft while bouncing across the United States, spending an extended period in New York’s Harlem, a place that would shape his later output. Following the example of his mentor, Richard Wright, he moved first to France in 1953, then on to Spain.

After a few more years of scraping by, he entered the next phase of his career and monetary stability with his association with the La Serie Noire (Black Series) French crime fiction line. Notable is his nine-book Harlem Cycle (three of which, “Cotton Comes to Harlem,” “Come Back, Charleston Blue,” and “A Rage in Harlem” made it to the big screen) featuring Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones characterized by surreal descriptions of violence and mayhem. Himes used the hard-boiled idiom as a platform to address racial issues while his Uptown cops relied on their fists and guns in place of the more traditional method of sleuthing.

East versus West

“I had been slipping back into the street in spite of my respectable job as supervising senior head custodian at Sojourner Truth Junior High School. In less than three months I had investigated arson, murder, and a missing person. I had also been party to a killing that the police might have called murder.

But worst of all, I had found out that my best friend in life was definitely dead. Raymond Alexander, Mouse had died trying to help me. There wasn’t a place in my mind that I could turn to for hope or a laugh.”–“Black Betty” by Walter Mosley

In keeping with Los Angeles’ reputation as a city of transients, Easy Rawlings is a native Louisianian by way of Houston’s infamous Fifth Ward. A war vet and laid-off aerospace worker, he falls into detective work as a means of survival and a possible avenue to economic mobility. His creator, Walter Mosley renders a naturalistic view of Easy’s South Central neighbors, anxious to snatch their portion of the American dream by sidestepping the various miscreants, White and Black.

In contrast to duly appointed officers of the law, Coffin Ed and Grave Digger, who are more inclined to use fisticuffs and pistol whippings to clear their casebooks, Easy is a self-taught finder who uses a more cerebral approach as his modus operandi.

Coffin Ed and Grave Digger provide relative stability to a Harlem that their White counterparts cannot easily traverse. Easy is hired to find people or solve crimes because he can move easily throughout South Los Angeles, an environ hostile to most of those who employ him. The person he is charged with locating in his first adventure, “Devil in a Blue Dress,” is a White woman (who later turns out to be a light-skinned Black girl passing as White) with a “predilection for Jazz and pig’s feet and the company of Negroes.”

Coffin Ed and Grave Digger have an unofficial duty to provide safe passage for “. . .  White citizens (who) wished to come to Harlem for their kicks.” This is part of a warped symbiotic relationship in which these marks, suckers, and tricks provide sustenance for the various hustlers they seek out. The Harlem gumshoes acting as custodians of this hellish milieu are themselves the prototype noir heroes, gradually slipping to their pre-designated doom over the course of this eight-book run. Sure enough, in Himes’ unfinished last novel, “Plan B,” published after his death, both detectives expire, victims of the chaotic maelstrom they’d so ardently battled in their previous adventures.

Their West Coast counterpart faces more than his share of bizarre behavior in Walter Mosley’s naturalistic depictions of Watts and nearby locals, but is able to walk away. His comparatively detached methodology (in sharp contrast to his amoral and possibly psychopathic alter-ego, Raymond “Mouse” Alexander) is possibly a key to his survival as we watch him grow and mature over the course of the series, mirroring L.A.’s transition at the end to the 20th century.

Millennium torchbearers

“If L.A. isn’t the birthplace of noir–and Paul Cain’s ‘The Fast One,’ James M. Cain’s ‘Double Indemnity,’ and Chandler’s ‘The Big Sleep,’ all set in the City of Angels arguably say that it is–noir certainly came of age here on the page and on the screen.  L.A. now and then, is the place where you come to re-invent yourself, the city on the edge of the ocean, trapped between the desert, sprawling and anonymous, connected by freeways and cars, what better place is there for you to be someone else, make some other life?”–crime author Gary Phillips

Good literature reflects the culture in which it is created, and contemporary Los Angeles is well represented by Phillips and Pamela Samuels Young. Local product Phillips’ youthful diet of comic books and was augmented by heaping helpings of fantasy and thrillers.

“Aunt Virginia, a woman my Uncle Sammy lived with, gave me several books, one of them a collection of Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone short stories derived from several of Serling’s teleplays,” he remembers. “This knocked me out. These stories let us into the heads of the characters. It was great.”

Adolescent and adulthood meant becoming politicized, as he worked his way through the literary canon of Himes, Dashiell Hammett, Ross Macdonald and so on.

“I was also becoming a community activist on issues like police abuse and just knew at some point these two paths of mine would cross.”

As his writing flourished, Phillips produced two notable characters in traditionalist Ivan Monk and Las Vegas showgirl-turned-mob-courier Martha Chainey, described by their creator this way:
“Monk is solidly in the tradition of the hard-boiled PI from Mike Hammer to Sam Spade to Spenser. Martha, tough and self-reliant, is a kind of outlaw. She moves hard cash for high-rollers who haven’t bothered to declare said monies to the IRS. Elements of noir show up in these characters respective stories but, as I said, Ivan Monk is in the private-eye mold, though there’s often a political edge to his cases.”

In his latest offering “The Warlord of Willow Ridge,” Phillips weaves a current recession-era tale of foreclosed communities, illicit methamphetamine production, and marauding motorcycle gangs, a scenario where, in the author’s words, “the reader discovers that even in the suburbs, antisocial behavior goes on.”

Young, who considers Phillips a mentor, takes a different approach. A broadcast journalist before her present incarnation as a corporate lawyer, the Compton native places her tales in the haunts of the affluent, African American Angeleno: Baldwin Hill, Fox Hills, Ladera Heights, View Park, and enclaves adjacent to them.

Her legal training at UC Berkeley shaped her personal reading preference for legal thrillers, which, alas, left her unfulfilled.

“…I never saw women or people of color depicted as attorneys in any of the books I read,” says Young. “I would close the novels feeling satisfied with the story, but disappointed about the lack of diversity of the characters. “This void prompted her writing career and, interestingly, a foray into the emerging market of self-publishing.

“When they [publishers] passed on my third novel and my agent couldn’t sell it anywhere else, I had no choice to but to set out on my own.”

The heroine of four of her novels, attorney Vernetta Henderson, is cosmopolitan, educated, and sophisticated, as are her contemporaries. On a higher economic plateau than Easy Rawlins and Chester Himes’ Harlemites, young’s characters are confronted by the issues that plague present-day urbanites–climbing the corporate ladder in “Every Reasonable Doubt” (2006), closeted bisexual partners and the specter of AIDS in “Murder on the Down Low” (2008), and gender discrimination in this year’s “Attorney-Client Privilege.”

Admitting her weakness for hot-button topics that are currently in the media, Young has shifted her sights to the socially offensive issue of sexual exploitation. She gave an update on this work-in-progress.

“The working title is ‘Anybody’s Daughter,’ and it deals with human trafficking,” she says. “The research for the book has been both heartbreaking and eye-opening.”

Shifting locales

“The election of Barack Obama deeply affected ‘The Cutting Season.’” I set that novel on a plantation that’s opened up for historical tourism because I wanted to explore the question of how to honor our history while not letting it get in the way of tremendous progress we’ve made as a nation.”–novelist Attica Locke

Himes and Mosley achieved success by using geographic distance to write about their subjects: Mosley spinning yarns about his native L.A. from the confines of New York; Himes waxing about the bedlam of the Big Apple and Harlem proper from a transatlantic refuge.

Texas native, Attica Locke acknowledges the advantage of her perch here in the Southland to depict the source of her upbringing.

“I have a dream of one day writing a novel set in Los Angeles, though I feel like I’d have to move back to the South to write it,” she says.

Going on she speculates, “I think distance from the place I’m writing about works for me. That being said, I will probably always write about the South.”

Garnering critical acclaim with only two works under her belt, Locke’s success comes from weaving elements of the detective idiom with her own personal history as the child of social activists, and the murky background unique to the Gulf Bayou.

Her first offering, “Black Water Rising,” centers on a Houston lawyer (“Jay Porter,” she notes, “is a sketch of my father.”) juggling his lust for success with the specter of his youthful idealism, complicated by the time-worn dilemma of balancing ethical choice over personal cost.

Her second foray, “The Cutting Season,” focuses on two different murders, both on a Louisiana antebellum plantation separated by the time span of a century. The plantations of the two eras share an eerie similarity due to the presence of an indentured work force: the “happy darkies” of the slavery epoch versus the migrant workers who’ve become a staple of the region in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

In spite of the individual components that comprise her stories, Locke’s tales are hard to define.
“I would call them ‘contemporary suspense,’” says James Fugate of Leimert Park’s Eso Won Book Store.

The author herself is somewhat less evasive.

“I don’t know think my work could honestly be called hard-boiled detective fiction because the lead characters aren’t professional detectives, neither cops nor PIs,” she says.

“I think noir or ‘crime fiction’ is a more apt description in that there is a big crime at the center of an otherwise complicated sociopolitical and psychological narrative.”