The Ethnic Detective, Part II

Volume 23, No. 2, Summer 2007

The Ethnic Detective
Buy this back issue! Available in hardcopy or as a downloadable PDF.


  • The African American Sleuth in Genre Fiction by Frankie Y. Bailey
  • H.R.F. Keating’s Inspector Ghote as an Ethnic Sleuth by Alzina Stone Dale
  • Napoleonic Complex by M.E. Kemp
  • Mormons in Mystery Fiction by B.V. Lawson
  • The Sax Player and the Lieutenant: Charlotte Carter’s and Judith Smith-Levin’s First Novels by Nicole Décuré
  • Farewell Charlie Chan: A Selected History of the Asian American Detective by Calvin McMillin
  • An Ethnic Directive by Chris Roerden
  • Getting To Know Kate Shugak by Reba White Williams


  • She’s Not Your Grandmother’s Heroine (She’s My Grandmother as a Heroine!) by Lori Avocato
  • A California Private Cop For Our Time by Kent Braithwaite
  • Must They Be So Ethnic? Why Ethnicity in Mystery Does Not Need Defending by Julia Buckley
  • Black Ain’t Nothing But a Detective’s Color by Austin S.Camacho
  • The Diversity Dick: Cruising with the Ethnic Detective, a Slide Through the Underside by Henry Chang
  • Latinos Rush in Where Anglos Fear To Tread by John F. Dobbyn
  • What Color is My Protagonist? by Mary Anna Evans
  • The American Ethnic Minority Detective and Murder by R. Barri Flowers
  • A Policeman? What Kind of Job Is That for a Good Jewish Boy? by Barbara Fradkin
  • Mapping the Labyrinth, Or, How to Write a Chicana Anti-Detective Novel by Alicia Gaspar de Alba
  • A Crime Solver From Ghana by G. Miki Hayden
  • The Gradual Birth of Alvaro Hickey by Ken Kuhlken
  • A Valentine to My Jewish Mother by Rita Lakin
  • Willie Cuesta: Cuban-American Private Eye by John Lantigua
  • Writing Toronto—As Ethnic As It Gets! by N. J. Lindquist
  • When Half Is More Than the Whole by Sujata Massey
  • Gallantry Lives in Lisbon by Susan Oleksiw
  • Creating a Multi-Ethnic Detective by Neil Plakcy
  • New Eyes To View the World by Penny Rudolph
  • Puerto Rican Jewish by Jonathan Santlofer
  • Amos Brown, Harlem Sleuth by Gammy L. Singer
  • How Smith & Wesson Saved My Life by Nick Stone
  • Mystery Abounds in Washo Land by Sue Owens Wright


  • Mystery in Retrospect: Reviews by Karen Chisholm, M. Wayne Cunningham, Chiquita Mullins Lee, Kathleen M. Lyons, Verna Suit
  • The Earliest Ethnic Sleuth in British Detective Fiction by Philip L Scowcroft
  • The Children’s Hour: Ethnic Detectives by Gay Toltl Kinman
  • MRI MAYHEM by Janet A. Rudolph
  • Letters to the Editor
  • From the Editor’s Desk by Janet A. Rudolph

When Half Is More Than the Whole
by Sujata Massey (Minneapolis, MN)

I thought I was being original when I created a half-Japanese, half-American protagonist: a young woman who traverses fluently between both cultures, listening to Echo and the Bunnymen in a Lexus gliding through the Tokyo nightscape, or eating homemade rice and salmon balls for breakfast in Washington DC. But in the ten years that I’ve been writing my mystery series, which is set in Japan and the US, my eyes have opened to just how common half-and-half sleuths are in mystery fiction. If you survey the shelves of a good mystery bookstore, you’ll find enough mixed-blood sleuths to form their own a capella singing group.

I actually did meet a mixed-race social club, in fact, the last time I signed books in San Francisco. An organization of vibrant twenty-something guys and gals who call themselves MIXED attended my signing wearing T-shirts with slogans such as, “What a Beautiful Mixed Baby.” The club members had read my first book, The Salaryman’s Wife, for their discussion group, and wanted to know why Rei was mixed—also, what I as a writer had to offer about the mixed-race experience.

I talked for a long time about it, that evening, but the fact is that Rei’s bicultural set-up is more straightforward than my own heritage. I write about Japan only because I lived and loved there; my actual ethnic and cultural background involves the India and Germany of my parents’ families, Great Britain, where I was born and spent early childhood years, and finally the United States, where I’ve spent the lion’s share of my years and am raising my children, after bringing them home from India. Oh, and just to complicate things, my husband comes from Louisiana—a WASP whose people arrived in the 1600s.

The unspoken question that I ponder is whether Americans are more willing to get behind a protagonist who is half-foreign, rather than fully alien. There are many literary successes set in foreign lands featuring wholly foreign characters, but in mystery, it is less so. There are exceptions to the rule, a handful of wholly Asian characters in English language crime fiction, but the halfsies seem to outnumber the wholes.

Some might say that a half-heroine or hero is not the real thing, a watered down version of something. The kids from MIXED specifically wanted to know why Rei wound up with a white boyfriend. My response: for one, he’s a pretty cool character; and for the second, what’s wrong with mixed race dating? All our parents did it, so why can’t we do as they did and look past race—whatever that means, anyway—and toward love?

In my next book, Rei is traveling to Hawaii, where there’s a terrific word for mixed Asian-Euro people: hapa. I loved Hawaii, in fact, because I felt so at home browsing the fruit stalls of Chinatown, the Japanese fish shop, and the farmer’s market, where a pandemonium of languages, including Hawaiian pidgin, broke forth. “This is the best place, Mom,” my eight-year-old daughter said wistfully. “Don’t you feel like we belong here?” Yes, I thought. Because in Hawaii, where almost everyone’s grandparents came from somewhere else, it’s normal to list three to five nations when describing ones identity. “I’m mixed plate!” a cheerful young hotel worker told me, after I asked him about his Japanese surname. I appreciated his charming metaphor. It makes for a delicious life—and writing.

Sujata Massey‘s latest book is Girl in a Box.

Puerto Rican Jewish
Jonathan Santlofer (New York, NY)

Delis and botanicas; bagels  and bacalaitos; mezuzah or an eleggua; grandma Rose and abuela Dolores.

Meet Nathan Rodriguez, forensic artist, a man living in two ethnic worlds: mother, Judith Epstein of Forest Hills, New York; father, Juan Rodriguez of Spanish Harlem by way of Puerto Rico.

Spanish? Jewish? Nate is that and more. I think of him as New York, a character who reflects a cultural zeitgeist. I could have made him Asian or Dominican or black. But it struck me that this was the Latin moment, a point in our history when Hispanic culture has hit the mainstream, its influence seen in music, movies, visual art, food, and more.

I have often chosen to write on things I wanted to learn more about—the art of the insane, mind-altering drugs, or criminal psychosis, to name a few. But this was bigger, riskier. As a white man did I dare take on a culture other than my own as character and background for my novel?

Years ago I wanted to write a book from the point of view of a character I’d created in my first novel, The Death Artist, a young artist named Willy Handley, an African American, but I got scared. Who was I to write about a black man? What did I know of his experience? Sometime later, I discussed this with a friend, the African American writer, poet, and artist Shay Youngblood, and her response surprised me. “Why not?” she said. “Isn’t that the writer’s greatest challenge, to take on what we don’t know and make it our own?”

Her words stayed with me and this time I did not let my fear stop me. I reminded myself that I had just written three novels with a woman protagonist—a challenge that did not require the wearing of women’s clothes, having a baby, or a sex change operation to understand my character.

I have a couple of Puerto Rican friends and I started with them. I got myself invited to family dinners. They did not seem very different from the weekly dinners I had growing up with my mother’s large Jewish family—my grandparents, aunts and uncles, my twelve cousins—loud and raucous, lots of laughter, the adult’s over-concern with feeding us.

I was very close to my maternal grandparents, particularly to my grandfather, a smart funny big-hearted man who adored me and I him. My friend Anthony seemed to have that sort of relationship with his grandmother, his abuela, a sweet feisty funny woman who took one look at me, declared me “too skinny,” and proceeded to fill my plate, again and again. I felt like an actor gaining weight for a part.

When I created Nate’s abuela for my novel Anatomy of Fear, she became a conflation of Anthony’s grandmother and my own. Nate is a grown man, but his grandmother still thinks of him as a little boy.

Nato, her favorite among several nicknames for me, Neno, Nenito, the others, Nathan impossible for her to say with its th sound, plus she’d never liked the name. She brought this up to my mother at least once a month, and I gave her credit for never quitting. Lately, she’d been lobbying for Antony. At my thirty-third birthday this past January she’d presented me with a wallet with the letter A stamped on it. ‘”What’s with the A?’ I’d asked. ‘In case you decide on Antony,’ she’d said. You had to give it to her. My mother almost plotzed, which was my Jewish grandmother’s favorite word or saying: I could plotz, she’d say, or I’m plotzing. My two grandmothers adored each other though I don’t know if they ever understood what the other one was saying, which is maybe why they adored each other. Occasionally my abuela used the word plotz, and it always made me laugh.

New York City has always been a melting pot. My friends are Irish, Italian, German, Polish, Russian, Japanese, African American, Arab, Jew, and Latino. It’s what I love about New York.

I was in the city when the World Trade Center was attacked and later, when the dust settled and New York was stunned and in mourning, one of things that kept surfacing in my mind was: Why New York, of all places, a city where Arabs and Jews coexist; where practically every race and religion is represented? It seemed misguided, but then terrorism is not about making sense. It’s about dividing people and creating fear; about targets that will get noticed. It’s a dark mirror to the beauty of ethnic mix that I so enjoy.

My grandmother used to say to my mother, “You’re a Yankee, and your children are Yankee doodles,” and she said it with a kind of cockeyed pride. She spoke to my mother in a mix of English and Yiddish, and was often embarrassed when she could not come up with the right word and would ask me for help.

My friend Anthony’s abuela speaks a mix of Spanish and English commonly referred to as Spanglish, as do her grandchildren who are totally at ease with either language, their English without accent or intonation. This is true of Nate Rodriguez, a thoroughly assimilated man who, if not for his last name, could easily pass for Anglo, which is sometimes a blessing, sometimes a curse.

Creating the world of Nate Rodriguez took me places I had not expected. His abuela is both a Catholic and follower of Santeria, and once I started to investigate the latter I couldn’t stop. I read several books on the subject, but that wasn’t enough. I needed to meet Santerians to understand how they practiced this decentralized religion in their daily lives. I went to clubs where young Hispanics who follow Santeria hung out and made friends. They, in turn, took me to meet santeros and santeras (spiritual and physical healers). I became a regular in a Spanish Harlem botanica where I bought candles for success, cowrie shell and beaded bracelets to wear for protection, soap to wash away bad luck. My wife started giving me looks. One week I refused to go away for the weekend because the santera told me I had to burn a particular candle for seven straight days and I did not want to extinguish it and chance angering the gods.

It’s true that I often fall into my work; I get lost in paintings, in characters, in plot.

In Anatomy of Fear NYPD sketch artist Nate Rodriguez has been asked to do the impossible: to make a drawing of a man no one has ever seen. A case depends on it; his life may depend on it. But how? He can’t imagine. His abuela takes him to see an espiritista, a Santerian priestess, and he has a breakthrough. Below, an excerpted account of Nate’s visit.

The espiritista laid her hand on my chest and told me there was much pain in my heart. Then she touched my forehead and asked how long I had suffered from dolar de cabeza.

“Headaches,” my grandmother translated.

How did she know?

Then she said it was time and led me into the back room. It was stark and simple, nothing at all like the packed storefront, white walls dotted with pictures of saints and a Mesa Blanca with plastic saints, glasses of water, a wooden crucifix wrapped with beads, angel figurines, books, and candles waiting to be lit.

I was trying hard to be open-minded. Was this really any different than a church, a synagogue, a Buddhist temple?

Maria Guerrero crushed powdered incense into a small iron pot, lit it, and whisked the smoke into the air. She recited a prayer, turned off the lights, and the room took on a warm glow. She touched my hands and they stopped shaking; my head and my thoughts stopped racing; my chest and my breathing slowed.

Then she said she was going to perform a limpia, a ritual cleansing.

She sprinkled me with powders and pungent herbs and spoke of Eleggua, who would either open or close the roads for me. She slipped a beaded necklace around my neck, “Los collares,” she said, and the muscles in my neck eased in a way they had not in weeks.

She asked me to take off my shirt, broke an egg into a pitcher of water, and poured it over my neck. It oozed down by back and chest and I shivered, a kind of electric energy coursing through my body unlike anything I’d ever felt before. She snapped blossoms off gladiolas, crushed them in her hands, and rubbed them onto my chest.

Finally, she mumbled a Spanish incantation then cleaned the egg water off my chest with my white shirt, rolled it into a ball, and told me to dump it into a trash bin as soon as I left the store; that the shirt had absorbed the evil spirits, and I must now cast them off.

This is not just Nate’s experience. I went through a ritual cleansing and the feelings I ascribe to Nate are ones I experienced.

Writing this book brought me into contact with a world that exists just blocks from my home; one I might well have dismissed a year ago. Surely, I would never have had a limpia. But is it really so different than a baptism or a bar mitzvah? Writing a book is a funny thing; you have to believe what you are writing or no one else will. I have never been a particularly spiritual person but right now, as I write, there are two candles burning, one to the orisha Chango, and one to Eleggua.

Readers have been asking how much of Nate is me? I usually say that I am exactly like Nate—tall, handsome, and Puerto Rican—though I am none of those things. But the truth is that Puerto Rican/Jewish Nate has become as much a part of me as Irish Catholic Kate McKinnon was before him. Perhaps I am easily influenced, or perhaps Ellegua has opened a door that allowed me to experience a different culture and religion in a way I never imagined.

Jonathan Santlofer is a writer and artist living in New York City. His fourth novel, Anatomy of Fear (HarperCollins), an illustrated novel of suspense, was published in April 2007.

How Smith & Wesson Saved My Life
Nick Stone (London, England)

The plot for my debut novel, Mr Clarinet, didn’t come to me all at once.  I got it in two installments.  The first came to me in Haiti in December 1995, where I was visiting my family for the holidays.  At the time, I hadn’t seen most of them nor set foot in the country for thirteen years.

I remember the moment lightning struck.  It was midday—bright and baking.  I was pacing around the courtyard with my late grandfather’s Model 10 Smith & Wesson revolver.  I was having a nostalgic moment.

We went back, the gun, the courtyard and me.  My first memory—age three—is of playing in the courtyard; my second is of the dog that approached me moments later.  It was a stray black German Shepherd.   It didn’t snarl or growl or even bark.  It didn’t run up to me and pounce.  It simply strolled into my life and—my third memory—clamped its jaws around my forearm and pulled me off my feet.

What happened next is a blank, although I’ve long since had the empty spaces filled in for me by people who weren’t there.  My grandfather was sitting nearby in the shade, watching over me.  This was something he liked to do while he still could.  He was dying of cancer and knew he didn’t have long to go.

He shot the dog with the pistol he always kept at his side in case of thieves.

Two weeks later he died in his sleep.

My uncle Jean inherited the pistol.  He mounted it in a glass case and used to pass it around at dinner parties, whenever the conversation went stale.

I found the gun quite by accident, still sitting in its display case, on top of a cupboard in the house I was staying in.

Jean told me the weapon’s history and then took it out of the case and handed it to me.  It had a dull grey finish and a wooden grip which had turned almost black with time.  It was heavier and sturdier than it looked.

The day I took the pistol for a walk in the courtyard—all the while mentally recreating the scene where my grandfather had saved my life—I noticed something about it I hadn’t initially seen, something only the intense sunlight revealed.  On one side of the grip, close to the end, three thin straight lines, each about a centimetre long, had been crudely scored into the wood.

I guessed what they stood for.

I wondered how my grandfather had felt, being God three times over, for a split second each.  I wondered how he’d lived with himself afterwards.

And that was how and when I got the first idea for my novel.

Simple, really:

I’d create a character who’d killed three people.  I’d give him bad dreams and a mounting sense of remorse.   I’d make him sorry.

Haiti, in case you don’t know, is a Caribbean island, situated roughly between Cuba and Jamaica.  It shares a border with the Dominican Republic.  You can’t miss it when you fly over it.  It’s the colour of rust on rust.  Its neighbours are all lush and green, healthy and abundant.   Haiti looks like it doesn’t belong there, like it’s floated in from another, sorrier part of the world, a place where it barely rains and nothing ever grows or lasts.

Haiti is apart, unique and alone, as are its people.  They’re also exceptionally funny: two hundred plus years of living with almost constant natural and man-made disasters means there’s gallows humour in the DNA.

I returned to live and work there in September 1996.  I’d got a marketing job in a now defunct local bank, based in the capital, Port-Au-Prince.   I stayed until December 1997.

The place was a disaster zone.  Think of some war/famine/drought ravaged African landscape teeming with extreme poverty and disease and you’ll get a picture of what it was like.

You couldn’t—and still can’t—drink the tapwater in Haiti. It’s so filthy you’re urged to keep your mouth shut when you’re having a shower.  The electricity supply is temperamental.  Powercuts can last for days.  Everyone who can afford one has a generator.  Everyone else lives by candlelight or in complete darkness.  There are precious few streetlights in Haiti.  It’s not only the poorest country in the Western hemisphere, it’s also the darkest.

A little publicized consequence of the 1994 US military invasion of Haiti was the repatriation of most Haitian criminals from American prisons—hundreds of murderers, rapists, gang members, and drug dealers were flown back to the island and handed over to the country’s authorities.   There was a slight problem with this—actually, make that a rather large problem: at that moment in time, Haiti was quite literally a lawless land.  Not only was the country without a police force or army (both having been disbanded by order of the UN), all of its prisons had been emptied of convicts and turned into squats, the judiciary had been suspended and all laws annulled pending the drafting of a new constitution.  The Haitian “authorities” who took possession of the homecoming convicts were actually nervous airport security staff.   They escorted the criminals off the runway and released them.  The criminals found their way to Port-Au-Prince and its neighbouring slum, a vast congealed cesspool and home to half a million people, called Cité Soleil.  Within months they were running both.

The crime rate rocketed on the island: murders, home invasions, carjackings, rapes, drug trafficking and, very disturbingly, a whole new dark phenomenon – child kidnapping.

Children had always gone missing in Haiti.  Most of them had disappeared for good, never to be seen nor heard from again.  There were rumours of adoption rackets, black magic ceremonies, child labour and other things I won’t go into here, but kidnapping was a whole new ball game.  And for once it wasn’t the poor who were suffering the worst, but the rich.   After all, only they could afford to pay the ransoms.

When I heard about this I got the rest of the idea for my book.  I’d send my triple murderer to Haiti to look for a missing child.  I’d make him a private detective.  He’d be haunted by his past—the life he’d lived, the lives he’d taken and the consequences he’d reaped.  His name would be Max Mingus, after an old school friend who’d got me reading Kafka, and one of my heroes, the very great Charles Mingus: jazz bassist extraordinaire, band leader, composer, bully, brawler, genius and author of Under the Underdog—the quintessential jazz autobiography, written as lopsided noir.

Now you know.

Nick Stone’s next book, King of Swords, will be published in August 2007.

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