24 November 2013

Entering the Mainstream

In the many years I’ve been collecting them, I’ve come across only three anthologies of crime short stories by black writers. The first two are Spooks, Spies, and Private Eyes: Black Mystery, Crime, and Suspense Fiction of the 20th Century edited by Paula L. Woods in 1995, and Shades of Black: Crime and Mystery Stories by African-American Writers edited by Eleanor Taylor Bland 2004. 

Black Noir: Mystery, Crime, and Suspense Fiction by African American Writers, edited by renowned editor Otto Penzler in 2009, is the third and probably the most important because Mr. Penzler’s recognition brings African American writers of crime fiction solidly into the mainstream. 

In the introduction Mr. Penzler observes that as society changed in the 20th century “modest numbers of blacks entered such mainstream elements of the culture as academia, law, medicine, science, and the arts.” However, “very few…detective novels” were written by African American writers, and it was not until “the past twenty years or so that there has been a regular flow of detective stories by black writers.” He concludes that their “stories... transcend race and genre to fulfill their primary purpose—to inform and entertain” (emphasis added). 

One author in the late 1800s and one in the early 1990s used the crime genre to tell stories about the relationship between white fathers and their mulatto children. 

The subject of Charles W. Chesnutt’s “The Sheriff’s Children,” published in 1889 in the New York Independent, is the relationship between white masters and their black female slaves and the harmful psychological effects on the children of such relationships. After the Civil War in the village of Troy, NC a mulatto stranger is arrest and accused of murdering Old Captain Walker. To protect his prisoner from a mob, Sheriff Campbell unlocks the cell door so he can escape if the mob breaks in. When Campbell turns from the window after encouraging the mob to disperse, the mulatto is pointing a pistol at him. He says he didn’t kill Walker and that he came to town to kill the Sheriff. He is Tom, the son whom the Sheriff sold before the war along with his mother, Cicely, to pay his debts. Sorry for the spoiler.  

Published in 1900 in the Colored American Magazine, Pauline E. Hopkins’s “Talma Gordon,” a locked room mystery, is “one of the first ’impossible crime stories’...by an American and the very first…by an African American.” Talma and her sister Jeannette are the daughters of Jonathan Gordon by his first wife. After Jonathan, his second wife, and their son are pulled from the fire that burned down their house, and it’s discovered that their throats were cut, Talma is accused of murdering them because her father was going to leave everything to his son while leaving her and Jeanette only $600.00 each because they are half Negro. The ending is disappointing because it smacks too much of a deus ex machina.

In the years before 1980, black writers, if they used the crime fiction genre, did so to deal with the problem of racial prejudice. The change in social conditions due to laws passed in 1950s and 1960s caused the flowering of crime stories by black writers in the 1980s. To enter the mainstream, the writers had to create characters of different ethnic groups, and the stories did not and do not always deal with the “problem.”

However, before the 1980s, Chester Himes and Hugh Allison each wrote a story featuring black and white characters that were published in two mainstream magazines, indicating some editors recognized their talent and took a chance that their readers would also.

In February 1942, Esquire published Himes’s “Strictly Business,” about a hitman nicknamed “Sure” who works on salary for a mobster. Aside from Himes’s storytelling talent, what is interesting about the story is the main character is white. I wonder if Esquire would have published the story if he had been black?

In July 1948, after Hugh Allison challenged the claim of EQMM’S editor that no subject matter was taboo, the magazine published his story “Corollary” in which black detective Joe Hill, while questioning a black chauffeur about his part in a series of robberies and the murder of five people by his white partners, realizes something the chauffeur says might help solve an unrelated kidnapping case that began with a finger a small black girl delivered to Joe. EQMM to me was more courageous than Esquire, taking a chance on readers accepting a black main character. (no photo available)

The two stories above show gradual acceptance before 1980s of black writers by mainstream magazines. As white readers began to read them in the 1980s, boatloads of novels and short stories by black writers of crime and mystery fiction flooded into the mainstream.


  1. Spoiler or not, The Sheriff's Children sounds like a terrific story. Thanks for publicizing these!

  2. Thanks for a very interesting article that had several new facts for me, Louis!

  3. Louis and I met a few years back when I stumbled upon his review blog about African-American crime writers. I liked his throughtful, contained style, and if I remember right he was working on a degree at the time. Not long after, he began contributing articles to Criminal Brief, and of course when we started SleuthSayers, Louis joined contributing his perspectives, views and reviews.

    Louis, that article about the sheriff is a zinger! Dare I ask if the ending stopped there?

  4. Leigh, no it doesn't. But the revelation was key to the story, and I thought it might spoil it for some readers.

  5. Louis, we already discussed Chester Himes' works after I blogged in October about Ed and Digger as detectives in 1960's Harlem. Guess now I'll have to look up Hugh Allison for some of his stories.
    I also like Robert Skinner's novels about a police Captain and his bar owning son set in New Orleans just after the Depression. Got a bit of a surprise a few years back when Frankie Y. Bailey informed me during one of our conversations that Skinner wasn't black. Turned out he was a college professor influenced by Himes' stories. Guess I just enjoy well told stories regardless who writes them.

  6. Louis. Interesting. Whenever I read a story by a new (to me) author whose name is gender neutral I subconsciously assume the author is a white male. I have no idea why, except for the fact that I am a white male. It is satisfying to see that black writers are becoming more successful. I just discovered the other day that Leonard Pitts, one of my favorite "pundits", has written a book. But I am sure you know that.

  7. R. T., It was your post on Himes that prompted me to write about the black writers gradual move into the mainstream. I‘ll have to read Robert Skinner. One of my problems is keeping up with the novels by both black and white writers of crime fiction featuring black main characters. I’m currently reading the series by Barbara Hambly, a white woman who has created a black amateur detective Benjamin January. The setting is New Orleans in the 1830s. Unfortunately, Allison was a playwright who never wrote another short story or novel as far as I could determine.

    Herschel, I didn’t remember Pitts until I Googled him. Wikipedia mentions a story he wrote in 2007 about the five black assailants who raped and killed a white couple here in Knoxville, and then I remembered reading that story by him. Here in Knoxville, race never played a part in the arrest, trial, and conviction of the five.

  8. For a long time I assumed James Patterson was black. That's the important thing when all's said and done is that it shouldn't matter.

    Love your post. Thank you Louis.

  9. Excellent post, Louis! I've read Walter Mosely for years, and just encountered Chester Himes thanks to R.T.'s recent post.

    Thanks to this post, I've now got some others to hunt down.



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