December 31, 2008


Dick Stodghill in his comment on my article “The Five Analytic Powers in The Art of Detection” for Criminal Brief reminded me of the African American writer, Percy Spurlark Parker (1940-). I had read and enjoyed a Parker short story in Shades of Black (edited by Eleanor Taylor Bland) and another in Spooks, Spies, and Private Eyes (edited by Paula L. Woods).

Parker is a member of The Mystery Writers of America and The Private Eye Writers of America (Shades of Black). His more than 50 short stories have appeared in The Executioner Mystery Magazine, Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine, the Strand Magazine, Espionage Magazine, and in the two canonical crime story magazines AHMM and EQMM.

Good Girls Don’t Get Murdered, published in 1974, is Parker’s only novel. Bull Benson, the amateur detective, is a professional gambler and owner of The Bull Pen, a hotel/lounge/ restaurant he won in a poker game. Street-wise and well known and respected in his Chicago neighborhood even by the “baddest” dudes, Bull is an addition to the tough guy tradition of Mike Hammer rather than Philip Marlowe.

Thinking about a possible a night of sexual pleasure as he escorts a young woman he met in his bar back to her hotel, Bull lets his guard down. He fails to act quickly enough when, out of the corner of his eye, he notices movement in the phone booth they pass. His instinct warns him in time for him to duck just as the occupant of the phone fires the gun. One bullet grazes his temple, but three bullets fatally find their way into the young lady’s body. He is driven to search the killer not to get revenge for his wound but, since he failed to protect the young woman, because his honor and pride are hurt.

When I finished the novel, I was tempted to describe it as bland because of the unremarkable prose and slow moving plot. However, I sat back and thought about it and realized, what I should have realized from the two short stories, Parker is a storyteller. Although the prose is unremarkable, it works. Bull Benson is a good, somewhat complex character I wish Parker had continued in a series.

The many suspects complicate and make the plot interesting despite the slow pace of the narrative, and the identity of the mastermind is a real surprise.

As in many hardboiled novels and movies, the bad guys are waiting for the good guy in his apartment and beat the crap out of him. However, we are not told how they got into the apartment of someone as well known and careful as Bull.

November 11, 2008


Covington comes home to Otis, South Carolina to help with the volunteer clothing drive and immediately gets involved in another of Mama’s sleuthing adventures. In MAMA CRACKS A MASK OF INNOCENCE, DeLoach’s last novel, Mama not only has to solve three murders, for the first time in her adventures, she also has to deal with an adversary, an investigator from the state Forensic department who refuses to accept her help or allow her access to information.

When Brenda Long, a high school senior, is brutally murdered, Hattie Russell, Mama’s supervise at the Social Service department, and Brenda’s mother Tootsie Long ask Mama to find out who killed her and why. Since Brenda is not a client, Hattie explains that she is interested because she and Brenda have a close relationship. Mama goes to see her friend Sheriff Abe to get what information she can and, of course, offer her help.

To her surprise, Lew Hunter, the state forensic investigator, has taken over the case because, he explains, they state has evidence that drug dealers are operating in Otis, especially in the high school. Mama refuses to believe the investigator. As in many close knit and stable communities, despite their knowledge of the community, Mama and her three friends are blind to the evil that they do not wish to see. Murder, fraud, blackmail, these things may happen but drugs, no way could such a thing happen in their town. In addition to solve Brenda’s murder, despite the investigator refusal to allow her to help, Mama feels she must prove him wrong about the drug dealing.

Two incidents convince Mama to change her mind about the investigator’s claim that drugs are being sold in the high school. The first is she and Simone find the body of Miss Sharp, a schoolteacher whom the school board is investigating for allegedly selling drugs to students. The second incident is the seemingly meaningless murder of Elliott Woods, the man who sells vegetables he grows in his garden. The question Mama poses to herself: are the three murders connected?

In the subplot, Mama immediately suspects Ray Raisin, a former resident of Otis and an old classmate of Agatha’s whom she seems to hate, is somehow involved in the drug dealing because murders and allegations of drugs in the high school happened shortly after he arrived in town.

MAMA CRACKS A MASK OF INNOCENCE is one of DeLoach’s best novels. It shows she was starting to tighten the plots and to maintain the suspense much better. Two elements stand out in the novel. The first is the way the plot is set up in the prologue. It is not the first time DeLoach has used the prologue but this one works much better. We see the murder take place but do not see the face of the murderer, nor is the name of the murderer mentioned. Besides sustaining the suspense, it allows us to follow Mama as she collects clues, experience her frustration, and see her determination. The second is that for the first time in her career as an amateur detective, Mama not only has competition, but the competition refuses her help. The surprise in the novel is real both for the reader and Mama, which makes the plot stronger. It is good even though practiced readers of the classical detective story will have guessed it about midway through.

Unfortunately for us, DeLoach’s death in 2001 deprived us of any further of Mama Covington’s sleuthing adventures. We can only wonder what other evil she would have exposed in the small community of Otis, South Carolina.

October 31, 2008


I have another blog at I won't tell you what it is about because you might not visit it. Go there, see for yourself.

October 25, 2008


I have written an article, "THE FIVE ANALYTIC POWERS IN THE ART OF DETECTION," that will be published on website Criminal Brief on Sunday, October 26. I invite my readers to visit the site and read some of the other very interesting articles.

October 22, 2008


When Simone Covington comes home to arrange an anniversary party for her parents, who have been married for 35 years, she is not surprised that Mama is about to get involved in another sleuthing adventure. Mama greets her at the door with the news that Sarah Jenkins, one Mama’s friends and one of a trio of gossips who often are a source of information, is in the hospital. Sarah reveals a little capsule of truth about her affairs that gets Mama involved in a case of adultery and murder in Mama Pursues Murderous Shadows, the seventh novel in Nora DeLoach’s Mama series.

Ruby Spikes, Sarah’s goddaughter, is found dead in a motel room, and her death is initially ruled a suicide. She is embarrassed to reveal to her three friends that she fell for a lottery scam and sent an unknown person money she was saving to pay her property taxes. She can save her home if she can collect the money from an insurance policy, but the insurance company will pay only if Ruby’s death is not ruled a suicide.

Sheriff Abe informs Mama that Ruby had $2000.00 in her purse when she entered the motel, but there was no money in her purse or on her body when he arrived on the scene. Inez Moore, who found the body, is an immediate suspect. She worked with Ruby at a garment factory and was fired after Ruby reported that she and her boyfriend were stealing goods from the factory. Mama discovers later that Ruby also had $35,000 in the bank that is also missing.

Later on in the investigation, Mama learns that Betty Jo Mets, one of her young welfare clients, had become Herman Spikes’s mistress and moved in with him after Ruby died. Ruby was cheating on Herman with another man, so Herman decided to cheat on her with Betty Jo. Mama becomes suspicious when Betty Jo, a healthy young woman, is found dead in Herman’s bed.

The facts in the case leave Mama wondering where Ruby got so much money, who would want her dead, and if there is a connection between the two murders?

Because I am a DeLoach fan, it pains me to say that the plot of Mama Pursues Murderous Shadows is too predictable with no real surprises. The lack of a good plot made me turn my attention to the three gossips, who have been Mama’s friends from the time they were all young women. They are significant in all of the novels, but I neglected to mention them in my critical reviews of the first six. Simone’s (really, of course, DeLoach) description of the three women shows each has a distinctive personality. She calls them “Otis’s historians because these three women know everything about everybody.”

Sarah Jenkins, whose problem provides the motive for Mama to take the case, “is a tiny, frail-looking woman with a wrinkled, pecan-colored complexion. She spends as much time in the doctor’s office as he does.”

“Annie Mae Gregory is a very fat, very dark woman with eyes that are small and very piercing. Set deep in her fat face, Annie Mae's eyes always remind me of a raccoon's-bright and extremely inquisitive. When her head is tilted a certain way, she looks cross-eyed.”

“Carrie Smalls…is tall, with mocha skin and straight, shoulder-length hair. Carrie looks younger than her two friends but that's because she dyes her hair jet black. She also has a strong chin, thin lips, and eyes that seldom seem to blink. She has a scary strength about her. I always tell Mama that it's Carrie Smalls's strength that gives these three women their presence when they're together.”

DeLoach does include some excitement for the reader. During her investigation, Mama and Simone are run off the road but no one is injured. Later, Mama is shot at while searching Betty Jo’s house where she finds an important clue. However, these incidents do not make up for the weak plot.

September 29, 2008

Mama Follows the Dog’s Nose

In her novels, DeLoach uses what I call interludes in which she becomes an omniscient narrator, providing information that creates suspense and advances the plot. The opening interlude or prologue of Mama Rocks The Empty Cradle, the sixth novel in the series, ends with James’s dog Midnight dropping baby’s skull at his feet.

Having caught our attention, DeLoach returns the narration of Mama’s sleuthing adventures to her daughter Simone, who has come to Otis from Atlanta because Mama is having surgery to remove bunions on her feet. She and Mama immediately get involved in an investigation of murder and abduction. While shopping for groceries, they encounter Birdie Smiley violently shaking Cricket Childs’s baby Morgan. Mama takes the baby away from her and asks what she is doing with Morgan? Birdie replies repeatedly “I ain’t got no business keeping a baby,” Sheriff Abe shows up with Cricket, who accuses Birdie of stealing her baby from her car in “broad daylight.”

Later, Sheriff Abe informs Mama that Cricket has been found dead in her ex-boyfriend Clarence’s apartment and the baby is missing. Mama pursues the case because Cricket, one of her former clients, called her on the day little Morgan was born, and she had gone to the hospital to comfort her and because a beautiful, hopeless baby is missing and might even be dead.

As Mama’s investigation progresses, the suspects pile up. Suspicion immediately falls on Cricket’s boyfriend and the baby’s father Timber, and her ex-boyfriend Clarence Young. Three married men in the community become suspects when Mama learns that Cricket and her friend Sabrina Miley were blackmailing them.

We are not told what the three men did that was so bad that they didn’t want anyone to know. A good guess is that it probably involved sex because literary blackmail in such cases is a convention not just in detective novels but also in novels of other genres. We readers have come to accept such a convention just as we accept literary illnesses.

After Midnight brings home a second baby skull, the search for the source of the skulls lead Mama and Simone to a cemetery behind the trailer home where Cricket’s sister lives. Lucy Bell Childs, Cricket’s deceased grandmother, was for many years the midwife in the community and buried babies who dead in the cemetery. She plays an important function in the story in that as the midwife, she buried two babies, twins, but did not record their names in her records. This information is the main clue that aids Mama in solving Cricket’s murder and the kidnapping of little Morgan.

It is not often that a title of a novel so announces its theme as it does in Mama Rocks The Empty Cradle. The article “the” gives the game away—The empty cradle is Simone’s feelings about motherhood, which are stirred when she sets out to help find little Morgan because she “recalled the beguiling eyes of the beautiful baby, the eyes that had so captivated me and changed my feelings about children and becoming a mother.”

Simone’s feelings about motherhood introduce the subplot. In the other novels, the subplots advance the action of main plots. In Mama Rocks The Empty Cradle the subplot is thematic. It begins when Simone’s pregnant friend Yasmine, who wants sympathy from Simone but gets instead disapproving advice, reveals she is thinking of an abortion. Simone considers “It…ironic that Yasmine’s dilemma and the kidnapped Morgan were what it had taken to spark my maternal flame.”

Simone asks Mama if it is hard raising children. DeLoach, through Mama, replies: “Simone, sweetheart, I believe that the secret to raising children is in doing three things: First, set the example for whatever you want them to be. Second, love them unconditionally. And, third, accept them for their own uniqueness.”

In Mama Rocks The Empty Cradle we learn a little more about the Covington family. Mama has earned her “bachelor’s degree from the University of the State of New York Regents External Degree program,” and James was an officer in the Air Force.

The novel sustains suspense with a good plot and interesting characters, especially the names, but has two large flaws. First, the insertion of the three other suspects rings a little phony because their presence seems to be for the sole reason of having suspects. We are not told what the girls have on the men that would make them pay to keep the girls quiet.

Second the novel ends with a disappointing whimper. The kidnapping furnishes the intrigue to keep the plot moving and leads to the surprise motive for Mama, but the surprise is rather weak for readers.

August 12, 2008

The Bound Between Land and People

When the slaves in the U. S. were freed, they were promised forty acres of land and a mule. Not many received the land and mule during or after Reconstruction. But some did, and a bound was established between the land and the families that owned it. As in all families, disputes sometime arise over disposition of the land. Such a dispute leads to murder in Nora DeLoach’s fifth novel, Mama Stalks the Past, featuring Mama and her narrator/daughter Simone.

In the opening chapter, Nat, the angry son of a neighbor, bursts into Mama’s house, accuses her of stealing land from him, and threatens to kill her. James, Mama’s husband, with his fist drawn back, steps between them, forcing Nat to hastily leave the house.

A puzzled Mama learns from lawyer Calvin Stokes that her neighbor, Hannah Mixon, who hated Mama and just about everybody in the neighborhood, died and left property she owned to Mama instead of Nat. He also informs Mama that Hannah wanted her to find an envelope, which, both surmise, might explain why Hannah left the property to her.

Mama’s search for the envelope becomes a murder investigation when the autopsy reveals that Hannah was poisoned. James, Simone, Mama’s daughter and narrator of their detecting adventures, Sheriff Abe, and others in the small community fear for Mama’s life after Nat is murdered. Their fears seem to be realized when an attempt is made to poison Mama. Such an attempt does not stop her because she feels she owes it to Hannah to find out who murdered her and Nat and why.

Before Hannah married her fourth husband, Leroy Mixon, who is not Nat’s father, she was married to three other men. Leroy was previously married to Stella Gordon, and they had a son Reeves. Leroy inherited the land from Stella, and Hannah inherited it when he died. Reeves believes his father killed his mother to get the land, and that the land rightfully belongs to him.

Reeves, an alcoholic who had been in a hospital in Florida, is found dead in the house on the property. This adds another body to the puzzle Mama is trying to unravel. As if three bodies are not enough, one of Nat’s girl friends also is killed.

The subplot both provides a distraction to the main plot and comments on the main theme of the relation between the land and families. In addition to solving the murders, Mama has to deal with land that has been in her husband James’s family since reconstruction. Some of the cousins want to sell the land; others, including James, want to keep it. Uncle Chester, the oldest living owner of the land wants it to remain in family but refuses to do what his daughter Agatha wants: incorporate the land.

The subplot is better than main because It has humor and a better sense of the connection to past through land in the form of Uncle Chester, especially land given to the former slaves, a theme rarely explored in novels by and about Black people.

To describe the several flaws in the plot would reveal the identity of the murderer. However, the biggest flaw is DeLoach’s failure to explain how some characters come into possession of key information. Despite the flaws, readers will appreciate Mama Stalks the Past for DeLoach’s attempt to construct a plot with exciting action, putting Mama in danger.

July 9, 2008


Mama Saves A Victim is the fourth novel in the DeLoach series of detective novels featuring Mama Covington, the extraordinary amateur detective in Otis, South Carolina. The case involves two women who are so much alike they could be twins, and two men who attempt to extort money from the father of one of the women.

On their way back to Otis from visiting cousin Hester, Simone, Mama’s daughter and narrator of their sleuthing adventures, hits a young woman with the car. Simone gets out of the car and stoops to see if she is injured, and immediately begins having a vision--sharp unrecognizable smell and a vague picture of a very frightening man--that will plague her throughout the novel.

The young woman is scared and seems to be running from someone. At the hospital to which Mama and Simone take her, she is listed as Jane Doe. Later, a man kidnaps her from the hospital. Mama feels she and Simone are responsible for the young woman’s plight, which is a sufficient reason for her to try to identify her and find out why kidnapped her and why.

For Simone, the vision is a nightmare. She has trouble sleeping and eating Mama’s good food. She is reluctant to tell Mama or Cliff, her boyfriend, about the vision because she thinks they will not believe her. Keeping the visions from them is difficult and adds to her anxiety when they notice several times that she doesn’t look well. Simone is eager to help Mama identify Jane Doe, and why and who kidnapped her because she believes the vision is somehow connected to the young woman.

As in most small communities, the residents of Otis are steeped in the history of the town. Mama relies on three gossipy friends for the history of most families in Otis, as well as current gossip. They and others tell her the story of a young woman who was abducted from the hospital just like Jane Doe after an accident six years ago. This information provides a clue that takes Mama into the relationships of White men and Black women in the South, and reveals the motivation for the kidnapping.

Although Cousin Hester’s history involving her son Fingers and their neighbor is interesting in itself, its function is to reveal an important clue to the identity of the murderer. Once the clue is revealed, DeLoach skillfully removes Hester, Fingers, and the neighbor from the story.

Ordinarily, I distrust mystery stories that rely on visions for the solution. In the case of Mama Saves A Victim the vision works because it is tied to reality and not based on the supernatural. The smell coming from Jane Doe triggers Simone’s memory of the traumatic experience that she has buried deep in her subconscious. The vision is the other clue, along with Cousin Hester’s history, that reveals the identity of the murderers. The identity is a surprise to Mama and the reader.

The coincident of the Jane Doe being kidnapped in a similar situation that happened six years ago works because the first kidnapping is tied to the motive for the two kidnappings.

Mama Saves A Victim shows that DeLoach is learning how to weave a tight plot using the conventions of the classical mystery story. Watching her develop her storytelling skills is a delight. The novel will not tax your mind with hidden clues, but it will provide an evening of enjoyable summer reading.

June 9, 2008


Mama Stands Accused opens with the subplot in which Sudie Patterson, one of Mama’s clients, accuses her of stealing food stamps ostensibly as revenge for Mama taking away her children. Although no one in the small community of Otis, South Carolina believes Sudie, the supervisor, following the rules, suspends Mama. James, Mama’s husband, and her daughter, Simone worry that Mama might go jail, but Mama is not worried, not even after Sudie’s body is found.

DeLoach uses the subplot not as a stand alone parallel plot, as in her first two novels, but as an incident to advance the main plot and show the character of Mama’s half sister, Agnes Clark, who is not above involving relatives and others in her criminal activities. In the main plot, Agnes is murdered with an ax in her own home. During her funeral, Mama receives news that Agnes’s mother-in-law, Mae Frances Clark, has been murdered, also with an ax.

Mama learns that Agnes’s husband Ben has been arrested and charged with her murder. She is upset and confronts him in jail. He denies killing Agnes. Mama tells him that last night she saw him standing on the porch with the ax in his hand. Ben admits he had been in the house but claims he doesn’t remember picking up the ax. He adamantly denies killing Agnes. The clues suggest that maybe Ben murdered Agnes after an argument about an alleged indiscretion in his youth and his current girl friend.

Ben’s position as a suspect is further complicated when Mama discovers that he once beat Agnes. He explains that he beat her because she was dealing drugs and didn’t stop when he told her to. Mama knows Agnes and her irritating personality, and believes Ben.

Ben breaks out of jail, and, while he is on the run, Mama learns that he also is the prime suspect in Mae Frances’s murder. An ex-girl friend of Ben claims that she saw him punch his fist through the wall while arguing with Mae Frances. The sheriff also believes Ben is guilty of murdering his own mother.

Mama is adamant in her belief in Ben’s innocence. He may have had a motive for killing Agnes, though she doesn’t believe he did it, Mama sees no motive for killing his mother. She must find the murderer to prove Ben didn’t do it. For Mama, the problem of the stolen food stamps is minor.

The confinement of Mama’s sleuthing to one locale instead of two makes for a tighter plot. DeLoach’s skillfully use the elements of the mostly like suspect, least likely suspect, distraction, and the detective as a suspect in some other, unrelated crime is admirable and shows she has master the classic method of telling the detective story.

However, I enjoyed the first two novels more because of the deviation from the convention of a single plot and confinement of the action to one locale.

May 5, 2008


Correction: In my March post, I stated that Nora DeLoach wrote nine novels featuring her amateur detective Mama (Grace (Candi) Covington). She wrote eight not nine novels featuring Mama. The ninth novel, Silas, is not a mystery but a parable about evil.

In Mama Traps A Killer, the second novel in the Mama series, Mama again handles two unrelated murder cases, and again one is in the small community of Ridgeland in South Carolina and the other is in Atlanta. No connection exists between the murders in Ridgeland and the one in Atlanta. Each plot could stand alone as a complete story with a beginning, middle, and end. For convenience, I call the Atlanta murder a minor plot because it takes up only a fourth of the novel.

In the minor plot, Simone’s boss, attorney Jacoby, is defending Thomas Matthews, a homeowner, who shot and killed Stephen Foster. Matthews alleges it was self-defense because Foster had a gun and was attempting to burglarize his home. No gun was found on the dead man.

In the minor plot, Mama shows Simone how to interview witnesses. Simone and Mama visit Mrs. Matthews to get her story of what happened. Mama’s relaxing and smiling demeanor puts Mrs. Matthews at ease. She indicates to the witness that she understands, and gently encourages the witness to continue talking. Mama pays special attention to Mrs. Matthews’s description of the behavior of the dog, Leonard. Neither she nor Mr. Matthews noticed the dog’s actions after the shooting because, according to Mrs. Matthews, the dog never did anything without being told.

The minor plot pays homage to the Arthur Conan Doyle short story “Silver Blaze” about the curious incident of the dog that didn’t bark.

The Ridgeland plot is longer and slightly more complicated, requiring the collection and interpretation of evidence more than the interviewing of witnesses. James, Mama’s husband, wants her to find a missing young man named Danny Jones, whom he has befriended. She finds his body, and, later not far from where Danny’s body was found, parts of the body of a young woman. She learns in her investigation that the young woman was Janie Pope, a hooker whom Danny was seeing. When Mama finds the body of Danny, his shoes are missing.

The evidence—James’s gun and jacket and his acting peculiar—seem to indicate that James is somehow implicated in the murders. Mama believes James is being framed. Simone suspects her father might have killed Danny or is in some way implicated in his death. Because he refuses to explain his relationship with Danny, she imagines that he might be Danny’s father. Mama must find the killer fast before, like his daughter, the small community condemns James.

The possibility that James might somehow be involved Danny’s murder creates the tension and drives the Ridgeland plot. Our respect for Mama’s faith in her husband and her sleuthing ability in no way lessens our feeling that something in James’s relation with Danny has put him in serious trouble. With the help of the sheriff and a friend, Mama sets the trap for the murderer. The identity of the murder is indeed a genuine surprise, even to Mama.

Familial love is the major theme in the Ridgeland plot. I will say no more so as not to ruin the ending for you.

I think you will enjoy Mama Traps A Killer because of DeLoach's mastery of the technique of presenting two unrelated plots in the same novel. One other aspect of this method is that in the small South Carolina community, the characters are mostly Black; in Atlanta, except for Simone and her friends, the characters are White. Mama has no problem moving easily among Black and White folks.

April 11, 2008


In Mama Solves A Murder, the first novel in the series of nine, Nora DeLoach uses the classical detective formula. Suspicion points to several characters, confusion abounds, a seemingly guilty person is proven innocent, and a seemingly innocent person is proven guilty, and the violence is off stage. Like the amateur detectives in the classical tradition, Mama, does not use forensic science in solving the murders. She depends upon her knowledge of human nature.

Mama does, however, differ from the classical detective. She is Black, married, and has three children. In addition, she solves murder mysteries in her hometown of Hampton, South Carolina and Atlanta, Georgia, thus, at times, getting away from the small town community and taking on two cases simultaneously.

Although the title suggests that Mama solves one murder, she solves two unconnected murders—one in Ridgeland near Hampton and the other in Atlanta. This is a departure from the Western tradition in the structure of the classical detective novel, which requires that if more than one murder occurs, they must be connected in some way.

The novel opens with the murder of Mama’s Aunt Aggie Nelson and Aggie’s daughter Rita Ginn in the small community of Ridgeland. They are burned to death in their homes. Suspicion falls on the most likely suspect—Reverend Jones, a preacher who belongs to no denomination and has no congregation.

Simone, Mama’s daughter, is the narrator of their crime solving adventures. She works as a paralegal for a lawyer in Atlanta and brings Mama the second case. Her boss, attorney Sidney Jacoby, is defending Simone’s former college roommate Cheryl LaFlamme who is accused of murdering Harold Young, a man she alleges molested her when she was a young girl.

The murder of Mama’s aunt and cousin is not a subplot, and the case of Cheryl does not appear to be the main plot. The two are completely separate, except for the thematic connection. Both involve the issue of molestation. The Atlanta murder occupies about two-thirds of the novel, while the Ridgeland murders occupy only one-third.

Following the classic element of setting, the Ridgeland murders happen in a small community. There is also the flavor of southern gothic: molestation, incest, preacher with no church. Mama believes Rita was murdered because she knew or suspected Reverend Jones was molesting a child. Jones also has a boy sixteen and a seven year old daughter.

The Harold Young murder occurs in an urban setting, which is a departure from the classical locale of detective fiction. Mama has to travel from her small town community of Hampton to Atlanta to solve what is closed door mystery. Cheryl LaFlamme shoots Harold Young while he is sitting in a chair with his back to her. Employees in the office witness the shooting. There is no doubt that she shot him. The question is did she kill him?

Although DeLoach handles the two plots with skill, it appears that the murder in Atlanta was an afterthought, and that the Ridgeland murders were supposed to be the main plot. It is as if she started with the Ridgeland murders, but felt she needed to establish Simone’s life since she is the narrator. This required her send Mama to Atlanta but not just to visit Simone. The longer plot involving the Atlanta murder allows Mama to demonstrate her detective skills.

DeLoach almost pulls it off the handling of two unrelated plots simultaneously, but most Western readers of detective fiction would spot it right away and probably not like it.

Despite the deviation from the classical plot of the traditional detective story, DeLoach tells a good story.

March 15, 2008


If I were a spiritualist, I would tell you that Nora DeLoach, an African American novelist, channeled the Golden Age detectives Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, Miss Marple, Perry Mason, and, of course, C. Auguste Dupin in creating her sophisticated amateur detective “Mama.”

Born in Orlando, Florida, in 1940 Nora DeLoach died too soon in Decatur, Georgia on June 19, 2001. She was married and had two sons and a daughter. She worked for a time in Hampton, South Carolina, as a social worker. Before her death, she wrote nine novels featuring “Mama.” Because I believe devotees of the classical mysteries of the Golden Age of Mystery fiction will enjoy them, in the following months, I’ll be posting my analytic reviews of the nine novels. But first, let me introduce Mama.

Mama’s daughter Simone, the narrator of their sleuthing adventures, works as a paralegal and lives in Atlanta. She reports the following facts about Mama in the first novel, Mama Solves A Murder.

Mama is 53-year-old Grace Covington, a social worker whom her husband James and friends call “Candi because of a golden-brown complexion the color of candied sweet potato….” After James retired from the Air Force, they moved to his hometown, a small town in South Carolina. Mama is “shrewd and cunning. She has uncanny perception and self control. Her mind is formidable, her beauty enticing, but I’ve seen her use either to get in and out of places.” She is “a self-styled private investigator who sees herself as a romantic loner.” Mama is also a great cook.

DeLoach tells her stories in the classical or formal tradition. She leaves no doubt that her detective writer ancestors are Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, and Erle Stanley Gardner. Simone tells us, “Perry Mason is Mama’s favorite television program. Whenever Mama finds something that she thinks is worth sleuthing she calls on me, and I’m obliged to join her in the hunt. To be perfectly honest, Mama is my Sherlock Holmes and I’m her Watson.” Mama “had spoon-fed” Simone “on Agatha Christie from birth….” Mama often uses “the methods of Hercule Poirot.”

The classic sleuth Mama most resembles is Christie’s Miss Jane Marple. Miss Marple lives in a small English village, is a spinster, and her family consists several nephews. She solves murder cases by mulling over the facts and calling on her experience and observations of the people in the village. She and Mama resemble each other only in that they are both women, both live in small communities, and both use intuition because, as Miss Marple says in Murder At The Vicarage it “is a very sound way of arriving at the truth.” Mama is an American Black woman and has a family—husband James, daughter Simone, and two boys, Will and Rodney.

Mama Solves a Murder (1994)
Mama Traps a Killer (1995)
Mama Saves a Victim (1997)
Mama Stands Accused (1997)
Mama Stalks the Past (1997)
Mama Rocks the Empty Cradle (1998)
Mama Pursues Murderous Shadows (2000)
Mama Cracks a Mask of Innocence (2001)

February 14, 2008


In the 1970s, Blacks expressed their anger and frustration in blaxploitation movies. The plots involved drugs, prostitution, and other criminal activities. The hero, if their was one, fought against the White establishment or against some Blacks in his own group. Black freedom was the theme of most of these movies.

Nazel’s BLACK GESTAPO is an adaption of the blaxploitation movie “Ghetto Warriors,” and he does not deviate very much from the movie’s story line. General Ahmed is the Black leader of “The People’s Army,” an organization that is trying to help the people in the community using grants from the government. He runs a detoxification unit for drug addicts. Colonel Kojah is his second in command.

The two men differ on how to fight the White syndicate that is preying on the residents, collecting money from the numbers, prostitution, and other illegal activities. Ahmed wants to use the system to fight the White man and avoid violence.

Kojah advocates attacking violence with violence. He forms his own army and calls it “The People’s Army.” After killing the White gangsters who collect money for the syndicate, he and his army become the predators preying on their own people. Kojah’s excuse for turning thug is he needs money to finance his army’s activities.

Once Kojah eliminates the White gangsters, Ahmed confronts him because of his extortion of the residents.

The novel is as bad as the movie was. The implausibility of the plot and the unbelievable unreality of the characters work against suspension of disbelieve. Emory Holmes II, a writer who admired Nazel, must have had BLACK GESTAPO in mind when he labeled some of Nazel’s writings as “god-awful” in his appreciation of Nazel in 2006 ( Adapting a bad movie to a novel doesn’t make it better.

January 27, 2008

The Long Reach of Justice

A common element in crime/detective fiction by Black American writers is Black American history. Sometimes the history is used as background to set the context of present day events. Sometimes it is the center of the story in which the long arm of justice reaches back in the past to rectify an injustice that affects the present. The Twelfth Card falls under the latter category.

The twelfth card of the title is the Hanged Man card in the Tarot and refers to the Norse god Odin. The card signifies the quest for spiritual enlightenment. To Rhyme and his team, the man hanging upside down by one foot seems to indicate something bad. This clue is one of the many ways in which Deaver weaves the diversions into the plot.

The Twelfth Card is the first Jeffery Deaver novel that I have read. Deaver, a White writer, has created a Black main character, criminalist Lincoln Rhyme, a quadriplegic who works from his wheel chair in his apartment. He can move only the index finger on his left hand to steer his chair. Like the traditional cerebral detectives, he is single-minded when on a case. He rarely meets “with perpetrators face to face. For him, a scientist, the only passion in his job was the game itself, the pursuit, not the physical incarnation of the suspect.” Working with him full time is Amelia Sachs, a New York Police officer. Whenever the department asks him to take on a case, he has at his disposal the personnel he needs.

In The Twelfth Card Rhyme is called in to solve the mystery of why someone wants to kill 16 year old high school student Geneva Settles, who is researching her ancestor, a freedman who lived and owned property in Manhattan 140 years ago? Once he gets involved in the case, Rhyme realizes that he has two problems. He and his team must protect the teenager from a hit team while simultaneous solving a 140 year old murder. As the evidence accumulates, Rhyme realizes that he is matching wits with the leader of the hit team, a White, cold-blooded, expert killer referred to as Unsub 109. Despite the terrible things Unsub 109 does, we can’t help but admire him for his skill and intelligence.
Deaver’s outstanding research on the history of Black Americans in New York makes his descriptions of the social milieu in Manhattan in the 19th century believable.

Deaver lectures us on so-called “Black English,” or “African American vernacular English.” The lecture is unnecessary and actually mars what is a very good story. Filtering the lecture through the conscious of Geneva doesn’t fool us into thinking the sentiments expressed aren’t those of the author.

Geneva is thinking about her friend Lakeesha who is not really ghetto but pretends she is by talking Black:
The clues were obvious to Gen: if you listened closely you could tell that standard English was her first language. She was like those black stand-up comics who sound like homies in their act but they get the patter wrong. The girl might say, “I be at Sammy’s last night.” But somebody really talking ebonics—the new politically correct phrase was “African- American vernacular English”—wouldn’t say that; they’d say “I was at Sammy’s.” “B” was only used for ongoing or future activity, like “I be working at Blockbuster every weekend.” Or: “I be going to Houston with my aunt next month.
It is difficult to accept that a 16 year old teenager, even a very smart one, would think in such terms. She may know or realize her friend is “fronting” but is not likely to analyze so deeply. The lecture doesn’t advance the plot or contribute to development of the character of Geneva.

The Twelfth Card is enjoyable but is about 200 pages too long even in large print.