[On July 11th, 1960 Harper Lee’s novel To Kill a Mockingbird was first published. One of the most taught books in American classrooms, Mockingbird offers (among other things) a flawed but vital representation of race in American society and history. So this week I’ve AmericanStudied a handful of such complex racial representations, leading up to this weekend post on mystery fiction and race!]
On a ground-breaking genre fiction pioneer, and a contemporary author extending his legacy.
I’ve written a good bit in this space about mystery fiction, and especially the distinctly American sub-genre of the hardboiled private detective novel. I grew up reading widely and deeply in that sub-genre (it rivals only epic fantasy for the source of the majority of my pleasure reading, in fact), from the canon (Hammett, Chandler, MacDonald, Spillane) to the authors extending it in my contemporary moment (Muller, Paretsky, Grafton, Kellerman). There’s plenty of variety in those lists and their collected works, but I have to admit that there’s not a lot of racial or ethnic diversity. I don’t just mean the detectives, although they are indeed entirely white. But so (in my recollection, and recognizing that there are of course exceptions across such a wide body of texts) are their worlds, which, in 20th century America in general and California (setting of most of those authors’ works) in particular, is quite frankly a striking and frustrating elision. Authors don’t have to create characters or stories of any necessary type, but the worlds in which they locate those characters and stories are a somewhat different question; and to create such consistently white worlds reflects, at the very least, a particular and limited way of seeing the society and culture around them.
Fortunately for hardboiled private detective novels, mystery fiction, and American culture, in 1990—right at the height of this AmericanStudier’s teenage obsession with the genre—Walter Mosley published his debut novel Devil in a Blue Dress. The first of fourteen (to date) historical mystery novels featuring World War II veteran turned detective Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins, and the first of more than forty published works (again, to date!) by Mosley overall, Devil didn’t just create an African American hardboiled detective character and narrator (although it did, and Easy is one of the truly original and wonderful such voices). It also situated Easy in a post-war Los Angeles and America (the same foundational setting and society of Spillane and MacDonald’s novels, for example) that were truly diverse and multi-cultural, with storylines that both focused on the city’s African American community and examined the fraught and fragile but vital interconnections between that community and the city and culture beyond. While noting his desire to be known simply as a novelist (and he’s one of our greats to be sure), Mosley has also argued that “hardly anybody in America has written about black male heroes”—and in Easy (among other characters in his vast body of works) Mosley created one of the truly ground-breaking such fictional figures.
Mosley continues to publish, both Easy novels (the latest, Charcoal Joe, came out in 2016) and overall. But other 21st century authors have likewise taken up and extended his legacy, and I would highlight in particular a writer about whom I’ve written multiple times in this space: Attica Locke. It’s not just that Locke’s amazing (and quite varied) four novels to date have all featured African American detective protagonists (most of them not professional detectives, but fitting that role nevertheless). Nor just that she situates those characters and their stories in racially diverse and significant settings, from 1980s Houston to a historic site located on the grounds of a slave plantation (among others). Instead, as that last setting intimates, it’s also and especially that Locke creates novels that explore historical, cultural, and thematic questions of race, community, and identity in America, all while fully and satisfyingly fulfilling the expectations and possibilities of genres like mysteries and thrillers. In so doing, Locke’s books take their place alongside many of the other genre-plus texts I’ve written about in this space, from Longmire to Tony Hillerman’s novels, The Wire to Justified and Deadwood, and more. Indeed, she and Mosley both exemplify like few other American artists have the ability of genre fiction to plumb the darkest and most vital depths of our history and identity.
Next series starts Monday,
PS. What do you think? Other representations of race you’d highlight?
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