Volume 14, No. 3, Fall 1998
TABLE OF CONTENTS
- Chester Himes and the Birth of the Ethnic Detective Story by Robert Skinner
- Learning from Ethnic Detectives by Andi Shechter
- The Jesuit Way: Members of the Societas Jesu as Ethnic Detectives in American
- Crime Fiction by Peter Nover
- The Ethnic Detective in British Fiction: A Few Thoughts by Philip Scowcroft
- The Writers Write
- The Treacherous Heart by Arlene Gause-Jackson
- An Ethnic Surprise! by Robin Hathaway
- Brother Moskowitz and Me by Michael Jahn
- It Started with a Slap by Richard Lupoff
- The “Ethnic” Dilemma by Penny Mickelbury
- Writing Jewish Mysteries by Lev Raphael
- El Otro Lado—The Texas Ethnic Detective by Rick Riordan
- Profanity by Any Other Name by Aileen Schumacher
- A Mysterious Roller Coaster Ride by Judith Smith-Levin
- The Culture You Love or the Culture You Know? by S.D. Tooley
- The Man Who Made Himself Out of Movies by Polly Whitney
- The Birth of a Cop by Paula S. Woods
- Mystery In Retrospect: Reviews by Nancy Gordon, Carol Harper, Harriet Klausner, and Stephen E. Steinbock
- A Mystery Reader Abroad: Moving Again! by Carol Harper
- The Reference Book Case by Harriet Swift
- The German Reference Shelf by Thomas Przybilka
- MRI Mayhem by Janet A. Rudolph
- Letters To The Editor
- From the Editor’s Desk by Janet A. Rudolph
Chester Himes and the Birth of the “Ethnic” Detective Story
by Robert Skinner (New Orleans, Louisiana)
When Chester Himes, at the instigation of Marcel Duhamel of Editions Gallimard, wrote the first of his Harlem Domestic novels in the mid-1950s, “ethnic” detectives as we know them now really didn’t exist. True, Rudolph Fisher had written the brilliant The Conjure Man Dies in the 1920s, but his untimely death spelled the end to any further adventures of his Archer and Dart duo. Although a bit dated and mannered to modern eyes, it was a literary landmark and also a bit of a literary curiosity. There had been no detective stories with black characters before it, and it would be a long time before the world would see another.
In 1957, Ed Lacy, a white man, won the Edgar Allen Poe award for a novel entitled Room to Swing, the first of two adventures of Toussaint Moore, a negro private eye. Later, he would write a few novels about Lee Hayes, a black police detective. They’re good mysteries, too, and Lacy did his best to write them from a black man’s perspective. However, some parts of them never quite ring true.
It was really Chester Himes, a black man born, raised, educated, and imprisoned for armed robbery in America, who fashioned the first real “ethnic” crime story with negro detectives. In these eight novels, and a non-series book entitled Run, Man, Run, Himes presented a starkly-written sociological view of life in the ghetto of Harlem. Viewed from street level, the reader gets a startling close-up of con men, thieves, prostitutes, and drug-crazed killers unlike anything previously published in America. In For Love of Imabelle, the white reader in particular sees, for the first time, an unvarnished portrait of black life.
Himes doesn’t act as an apologist for his race in these novels, but he does show a cause-and-effect relationship between racial oppression outside the ghetto and prostitution, armed robbery, and murder inside Harlem. In his view, there are two kinds of victims living in the ghetto. One has been so dominated that all he can do is scrape by however he can in his ghetto prison, hopeful of the day that he finds his way to Heaven and its eternal reward. Given the violent, nihilistic environment that exists in the ghetto, some go before their time.
The other black victim is one who has been turned bestial by white oppression. Rather than go as a lamb, he becomes a wolf, preying on his own kind. Hank, Jodie, and Slim, who work with Imabelle to fleece her gullible lover, Jackson, in For Love of Imabelle, are prototypical characters in the Himesian universe. They are drug users, carry weapons, and think nothing of killing whomever gets in their way, white or black.
More than once in this series, Himes paints a picture in rhythmic prose of this teeming, dangerous ghetto, sometimes likening the inhabitants to flesh-eating animals:
Black-eyed whores stood on the street corner swapping obscenities with twitching junkies. Muggers and thieves slouched in the dark doorways waiting for someone to rob; but there wasn’t anyone but each other. Children ran down the street, the dirty street littered with rotting vegetables, uncollected garbage, battered garbage cans, broken glass, dog offal—always running, ducking, dodging. Listless mothers stood in the dark entrances of tenements and swapped talk about their men, their jobs, their poverty, their hunger, their debts, their Gods, their religions, their preachers, their children, their aches and pains, their bad luck with numbers and the evilness of white people.
In a single scene, Himes presents all of Harlem, the good side by side with the bad, the innocent inevitably tainted and corrupted by moral decay, which Himes symbolizes with the depiction of pervasive physical decay.
As Ulysses Galen, a white executive, is chased through the streets of Harlem by a dope-crazed gunman during The Real Cool Killers, his murder at first seems an unthinkable tragedy. Grave Digger Jones, in his search for the truth, ultimately discovers that Galen, known in the ghetto as “The Greek,” is a sexual sadist who uses his wealth to corrupt black youngsters he uses to feed his sickness.
In the same story, Himes offers us the character of Sheik, the leader of a gang of black juvenile delinquents. Although handsome and charismatic, Sheik isn’t quite sane. Little by little we see that the circumstances of his life in the ghetto have led him to use his gifts for evil. Ultimately the weight of his sins destroys him.
In Cotton Comes to Harlem, Himes offers an interesting juxtaposition in the schemes of Reverend Deke O’Malley and Colonel Robert Calhoun. O’Malley, a black ex-convict, represents the black preying on other blacks. His “Back to Africa” scheme, which recalls Marcus Garvey’s Back to Africa movement of the 1920s, is tailor-made to fleece the ignorant and downtrodden.
Calhoun, who affects the dress and demeanor of a southern plantation owner, arrives in Harlem with his “Back to the Southland” program, which preys upon the negro’s sentimental attachment to his Southern roots. In actuality, however, it is a scheme to trick him back into a new form of slavery. Both criminals have a higher goal—to find the $87,000 that O’Malley bilked from black families who bought into his scheme to return to their African roots and set up homesteads.
What makes the Harlem Domestic Series so forceful and compelling is the fact that Himes was writing sociological protest in the format of popular fiction. The mystery elements are nominal, at best, and are often lost as we follow the cast of characters around Harlem, usually without knowing who among them are guilty or innocent.
In all the stories the characters seem to be in a constant state of motion as they scramble for the thing that will save them from their purgatory or at least give them a ticket to a higher echelon in Harlem’s social strata. Often, however, the grail they search for is non-existent, a device Himes uses to stress the utter futility of black life. No matter how rich you become, he seems to say, you’ll still be a nigger, and to be a nigger in America is to be less than nothing.
Even Himes’s indomitable heroes, Coffin Ed and Grave Digger aren’t immune from the futility. In their final adventure, Blind Man With A Pistol, Harlem seems to be about to explode as three different black leaders, all of whom are misguided or corrupt, literally tear Harlem apart as they jockey for position. Meanwhile, a killer stalks the city, killing both white and black to fuel the fire.
Ed and Digger ultimately realize that their own superiors are conspiring against them to prevent them from uncovering the murderer, whom they are certain is highly placed and well connected. They are reduced to shooting the rats escaping from a building demolition. To heighten the irony, it is a black tenement that is being destroyed to make room for a white-owned business that will not benefit the population of Harlem. Against their will, Digger and Ed have been made to seem the handmaidens of the white oppressor.
Although the Harlem Domestic Series ends on a pessimistic note, it is a high-water mark in hard-boiled American crime fiction. The writing is swift and certain, the dialogue crisp and realistic, and the venue totally unlike anything that has gone before it. In one way or another, every author of black crime fiction, from Donald Goines to Ernest Tidyman, Walter Mosley to James Sallis, has been influenced by Himes’s portrait of a black criminal city, and the dilemma of the African-American hero searching for truth and justice within such a universe.
Robert Skinner is the author of Two Guns From Harlem: The Detective Fiction Of Chester Himes, co-editor of Conversations With Chester Himes, and the author of the novels Skin Deep, Blood Red, and Cat-Eyed Trouble.
In The Edith Wharton Murders, State University of Michigan writing professor Nick Hoffman finds himself dreading the Wharton conference he’s organized at the command of his department chair. Not even midway, one of the registrants has been found dead, presumably murdered, and the conference that was supposed to boost Nick’s academic career and his coming bid for tenure looks like it may be a complete disaster. If there’s anything a university hates worse than bad PR, it’s the person who’s caused it, and Nick’s being blamed by SUM’s image-conscious president for having let his conference “get out of hand.” Murder doesn’t matter to administrators except for the screaming headlines it may bring and the potential dip in alumni contributions.
It’s Friday evening, the conferees are in an uproar, and Nick has stolen away from the campus conference center to hide out at home. But there’s an even better refuge waiting for him: shabbat, the sabbath. As he and his partner Stefan do every Friday with the approach of sundown, they shower to symbolically wash away the week’s troubles. They set the dining room table with family tablecloth, silver, and dishes, while soothing Hebrew chants play on the stereo. With each step in preparation, he moves further away from chaos into a place of peace and reflection.
Together, he and Stefan enter further into what is really a spiritual retreat at home, trying to perform each action slowly and mindfully. Blessings lead them on: over the candles, the wine, hand washing, and finally the traditional braided shabbat bread, the challah. The sweetness of shabbat, heralded by sweet wine, spreads through Nick.
But perhaps what’s sweetest is that he enjoys this together with his partner Stefan. It’s not just their being a couple with more than a decade together that matters. Stefan is the son of Holocaust survivors who were so traumatized by their wartime torment they abandoned every trace of their Jewishness when they came to America after the war. Living in New York, they passed themselves off as Polish Catholics—or tried to. But family secrets reveals themselves even through silence, and at a very young age, Stefan knew there was some strange disharmony in his home, and in fact it led to his parents’ divorce. When he found out the truth about their history in his teen years, it split him not just from his family because of his rage at all the lying, but also from his past. Who was he?
Nick, who grew up positively and unambivalently Jewish in New York (where he met Stefan), has for years been hoping to reconcile Stefan not just to his parents but to his Jewishness, to bring him home. That they could both “make shabbat” together even with all the turmoil on campus is a revelation to Nick and a sign that Stefan is truly healing. It’s also a potent reminder to Nick of the power shabbat has. Jewish tradition says that “it is not the Jews who kept shabbat over the millennia, but shabbat that kept the Jews,” and this wisdom has clearly become part of their lives.
Lighting those candles and performing each ritual action binds them to Jews of millennia past and to Jews everywhere in the world moving from ordinary time to sacred time. It’s a powerful sense of belonging.
I’ve been publishing fiction and essays about the Holocaust and Jewishness for twenty years now, so it’s not surprising that these elements would show up in my mystery series. I grew up in a secular, Yiddish-speaking home, where religion was simply not a part of our lives, and found myself longing for it as I grew older, and gradually bringing it into my life. Nick’s love for his Judaism reflects my own.
Early in the 1990s, on extensive book tours for my novel Winter Eyes and my collection of stories Dancing on Tisha B’Av, I met a surprising number of Jewish men and women whose background had been hidden from them by their parents for various reasons, and whose discoveries had been deeply traumatic. That aspect of Stefan’s life—the silence, the lies, the fear—is a tribute to all their struggles.
And the interplay between Stefan’s dark, difficult relationship with his Jewishness and Nick’s easy, natural identification is one of the central contrasts in the series (starting with Let’s Get Criminal), whose primary focus is the hypocrisy and looniness of the academic community. Nick and Stefan’s varying ties to Judaism form a thread that will develop and deepen in each subsequent book in the series as Stefan reconnects with his family and Nick finds himself drawn to an even deeper level of Jewish identification through a surprising set of events. The seriousness of these concerns will always be balanced, though, by Nick’s lively narrative voice. It’s only someone who has a comic vision of life who can face Stefan’s darkness head on, mixing love and laughter.
Lev Raphael’s web site is levraphael.com.
I have been a reader of mysteries and thrillers since I was a child, but not Nancy Drew or the Hardy Boys—I was a Miss Marple and James Bond fan. I guess you could say it was my English period, but the wit and style of Agatha Christie and Ian Fleming were always something I gravitated toward.
But it wasn’t until I found a Chester Himes novel hidden away in my parents’ bedroom that I first saw black crime fighters, or black victims for that matter. Later, reading Himes in college, I came to appreciate his violent, almost absurdist view of crime and wondered why no one else picked up the literary gauntlet he threw down.
Of course, as I was to later discover, many have—Walter Mosley, Gar Anthony Haywood, and Valerie Wilson Wesley, to name just a few. But when I was collecting and editing stories for my anthology Spooks, Spies, and Private Eyes: Black Mystery, Crime, and Suspense Fiction of the 20th Century (Doubleday), there was only one other writer—Eleanor Taylor Bland—who had created a black police detective as a protagonist. Yet it was that kind of character who intrigued me the most.
Living in Los Angeles, which has always had one of the most, shall we say, aggressive police forces in the country, I saw first hand what it was like to be “policed.” When I was five I saw my father get stopped by the LAPD and humiliated for DWB (driving while black). I was with him again when we saw first-hand white officers beating black citizens during the Watts riots in 1965. And, unfortunately, I was also front and center when the city of tarnished angels exploded in fires and freestyle shopping without a credit card in 1992.
From the ’60s to the ’90s, policing in Los Angeles changed dramatically to include officers who looked like my father, my mother, and me. But an organization’s culture doesn’t change as dramatically as its complexion, something I’d learned myself working in corporate America for more than twenty years. Because I had faced a crisis of conscience in my own career—a point when I had to decide if I could remain in an organization whose values did not mesh with mine, regardless of the job titles and monetary baubles dangled before me—I wondered whether women, and specifically black women, faced similar challenges.
That question sparked months of research, of talking to women detectives in the LAPD and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, of discussing research on sexual harassment with sociologists, of tracking every instance of sexual and racial discrimination in policing I could find. My work culminated in the creation of Charlotte Justice, a black female homicide detective who works in the LAPD’s Robbery-Homicide Division, the same division that produced Mark Fuhrman and Philip Vannatter, RHD detectives who worked the infamous Nicole Brown Simpson/ Ron Goldman murder investigation.
Birthing Charlotte was simple enough in some ways—since there are no female homicide detectives in RHD, I had full creative scope there—but very difficult in others. She had to be damn good at her job or there would have been no way she could have shattered RHD’s bulletproof glass ceiling, which required me to learn just what makes for a stand-out detective in the LAPD. But I also wanted Charlotte to reflect the conflicting emotions I’d seen in every female officer I encountered—how to be tough as nails while being feminine enough to have your nails done! And if you do express your femininity, do your nails, and wear a little lipstick, how can you prevent some male predator who is riding in your squad car, or sitting at the desk across from you, from interpreting that as a come-on?
For black officers, the dilemma gets even deeper—how do you maintain your self-esteem on the job when you come from a community that generally despises police officers as oppressors, that has seen some of its members “taken downtown for questioning,” never to return? Does a career in policing make you a sell-out, an Oreo—black on the outside, but white on the inside? What motivates you to “keep on keeping on?”
Another issue I wanted to explore stems from a common mistake I see people make all the time—assuming cops don’t have a life beyond their jobs. So it was especially important to me that Charlotte have a family, that she come from a culture that I hoped readers would find fascinating, one which would give them a rich slice of contemporary black L.A. life beyond the gang-bangers, athletes, and entertainers seen on television. So I intentionally made Charlotte’s family high achievers, but a little wacky, too—from her Southern-talking, mad scientist of a father (actually a successful cosmetics chemist) to her Saks-shopping, aging debutante of a mother, from her big brother, a cop turned crusading attorney, to a younger sister who’s working on a second doctorate degree in psychology and thinks Charlotte’s career in the LAPD is part of an unresolved “Supersister” complex.
Is there any wonder poor Charlotte sees herself at family gatherings as “a cloth coat in a room full of mink?”
Because I love L.A. and feel it’s always gotten a bad rap as a tarted-up tinseltown with no history or culture, I also tried to bring a bit of historical perspective to the proceedings and predicaments in which Charlotte finds herself embroiled. For example, in Inner City Blues (W.W. Norton, January 1999), which is set in the 1992 riots, Charlotte unravels the long-ago disappearance of a black radical, which gave me a chance to comment on everything from the Zoot Suit Riots of 1943 to the Black Panthers and the Symbionese Liberation Army. And the buildings where some of the action takes place are designed by Paul R. Williams—not the ’70s songwriter but an exceptionally talented black architect who designed everything from mansions to mortuaries, territory Charlotte comes to know quite intimately over the course of the novel.
A dog owner myself, I couldn’t resist giving Charlotte a dog too—a boxer-with-an-attitude appropriately named Beast. But because I couldn’t squeeze Beast’s back story into the first novel, I let him have the spotlight in I’ll Be Doggone, a short story that appeared in the Summer 1997 issue of Mary Higgins Clark Mystery Magazine.
There was a phrase chanted in L.A. during the riots of 1992, “No Justice, No Peace.” Birthing Charlotte Justice has made me understand just how true that slogan is. Charlotte has become a part of my psyche now, and writing of her adventures in a post-modern paradise is a way of exploring and exorcising the demons and misconceptions that plague us all.