Friday, July 1, 2016

The Black Female Detective in Mystery Literature

When comparing the impact of racial prejudice to that of misogyny, it is worth noting that the United States allowed black males the right to vote 50 years before they gave females full suffrage (black or white). Correspondingly, the acceptance of black male detectives in mystery literature was slow in coming but preceded that of black female detectives.

Suffrage in the United States.
  • White male: 1789.
  • Black male: 1870.
  • Female: 1920.

The Relative Rarity of the Black Female Protagonist in Mysteries.

The initial pioneer was all but forgotten, her efforts not repeated for decades. The editor of Colored American magazine, Pauline Hopkins, wrote a mystery novel in serial format in 1901-02 called Hagar's Daughter. Here, a black maid, who goes by the name Venus, is treated as an equal partner in solving the crime alongside a black male detective.

Being in public domain, the book is available for free on-line.

The next occasion? Over the decades to follow, male black detectives (although not many) appeared in book form, notably the works of Chester Himes and a peak coming after the popularity of "In the Heat of the Night."

On television a remarkable early entry into the female black detective field came in the form of Get Christie Love, a made-for-television movie followed by a one-year series that first aired in 1974. The next example of a female black detective getting the title role in a television series? Rashida Jones in Angie Tribeca (2016).

During the blaxploitation era of the seventies, Angela Harpe (The Dark Angel) made her way into four pot-boiled novels, all written in 1975 by James D. Lawrence. Promoted as being the female Shaft, she was an ex-police officer who worked on the side as a high-price call girl and ex-fashion model who then became a high-priced private eye. I have not read the books, but several critics have described them as soft-porn, racist and misogynist.

In 1984, Susan Moody, now the author of over twenty novels, began a series of mysteries featuring Penny Wanawake, a photographer and amateur sleuth. The first of these was the novel, Penny Black. The book was ranked #56 in the 1990 Crime Writers' Association's list of all-time-best mystery novels.

On the plus side, the character is a strong heroine, the mystery is compelling and much of the dialogue is smart and sassy. Still, international, globe-trotting near-perfect Wanawake was more of a fantasy figure than a character.

The late 1980s also hosted the appearance of a single volume of Clio Browne: Private Investigator. An internet rumor says that the author Delores Komo was actually a pen name of the horror author, Dean Koontz. The Bibliography of Crime Fiction states that she was Dolores Komoroski who died a couple of years after the book came out.

The 1990s brought us several black female detectives and finally their presence was more than a rarity. Black female writers led the way.
Bland's Detective Marti McAllister graced some cool book covers.

The Black Female Detective Written by the Black Female Author.

One breakthrough came in the form of Blanche White, first appearing in Blanche on the Lam, in 1992. The author, Barbara Neely, described herself as being schooled by the novels of Toni Morrison and although the main character is a maid, the choice of occupation is a commentary on race and roles. Blanche's character is strong-willed and defiant. Her ties to her family and community are important in solving the mystery, which plays out in classic Southern gothic form among the genteel and mentally unbalanced rich. Neeley knows how to wield both comedy and cutting social criticism. The novel received several awards including the Agatha Award for best first novel. Neely went on to write three sequels.

About the same time, Nora DeLoach came out with the character, Grace "Candi" Covington who appeared in Mama Solves A Murder, 1994, along with seven more entries in this cozy series.

Nora DeLoach spent much of her life as a social worker venturing into writing in her fifties. Among all of my job experiences, social work provided me with the best understanding of character from the unalloyed humanness of the desperate to the pomposity of bureaucrats.

In the hands of less diligent authors, the maid and the mother figure could have played out as stock characters. In both of the above cases, they were given a fierce humanity.

The author Eleanor Taylor Bland first presented the world with the female police detective, Marti MacAlister in Dead Time, 1992. MacAlister is a strong woman who must balance career and family while solving crimes. For Bland, racial commentary often appeared in the subject matter of the plot. In the 2003 novel, Fatal Remains, MacAlister and her partner deal with murder at the excavation of a site that was said to have been part of the Underground Railway for slaves, but may have had more sinister uses.

The late 1990s brought the arrival of LAPD Detective Charlotte Justice in Inner City Blues, by Paula L. Woods. Misogyny and racial tension are up-front and center as Det. Justice is plunged into the midst of the "Rodney King" riots and becomes involved in solving the mystery of who killed the man who killed her husband and child. The internal politics and prejudices of the LAPD make a formidable, albeit uncomfortable, backdrop to the novel which went on to win the Macavity Award and spawned three sequels.

The voices of black female authors offered an authenticity to the above novels. No longer were prejudice and racial issues defined solely in the "black and white" stories familiar to middle-class white consciousness. As much as anything, racism comes out in a thousand small ways. The protagonists fight both an external and internalized struggle.

The most successful mystery series featuring a black female detective began in the 1990s with Alexander McCall Smith's The Number 1 Ladies Detective Agency, 1998. Set in Botswana, the private detective Precious Ramotswe takes a mostly gentle and intuitive approach to solving crimes. It is always a delicate balance for someone who could be described as being from the colonial class to undertake writing about another culture. Smith mostly avoids falling into traps by exuding love for his characters and for their nation. In doing so, he consciously seeks to define Botswana on its terms rather than something that is foreign. Is this love enough? Love without condescension is better than the alternatives.

I am half-Latino. Although none of this heritage appears in my features, I grew up raised by my mother, who was what was then called a Chicano activist. Perhaps it is this undercover persona that has provided me with a sense of otherness as I approached writing. I grew up on a farm and in the urban city, the smallish isolated town and the medium-sized town, in the cold and in the heat. For me, every culture, even my own (whatever that is) is foreign to me.

My novel, Never Kill A Friend, (Ransom Note Press, 2015) features a black female detective. This choice seemed inevitable. I had decided to set the novel in Washington, DC, and the Washington of which I am familiar is the urban city with the national politics just being background noise. As I have said before: urban DC is Duke Ellington; political DC is John Phillips Souza on a tuba. I was immersed in urban DC and had only occasional glimmers of the weirdness of the political side. As a second reason for choosing a black protagonist, I had just finished researching a lot of African-American history for a different project.

I am proud to have contributed to the increased presence of black female detectives. As to how successfully I have honored the genre, I will leave that to others to judge.

Never Kill A Friend, Ransom Note Press

Never Kill A Friend is available for purchase in hard cover format and as an ebook.
The story follows Shelley Krieg, an African-American detective for the Washington DC Metro PD as she tries to undo a wrong which sent an innocent teenager to prison.

Hard cover: Amazon US
Kindle: Amazon US
Hard cover: Amazon UK
Kindle: Amazon UK
Barnes and Noble  


  1. There's also Vernetta Henderson from Pamela Samuels Young - a truly awesome series. It's not easy finding the Nora DeLoach series, but they are well worth it.

  2. Christie Love was my hero when I was a child! I've hardly met anyone else of my generation who has heard of her.

    I like Gar Anthony Hardwood's cozies about a Black couple who travel in a Airstream trailer. Thanks for these books to explore.

  3. Christie Love was my hero when I was a child! I've hardly met anyone else of my generation who has heard of her.

    I like Gar Anthony Hardwood's cozies about a Black couple who travel in a Airstream trailer. Thanks for these books to explore.

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