December 15, 2009
Black Noir: Mystery, Crime, and Suspense Fiction by African American Writers, ed. Otto Penzler, Pegasus Books, 2009.
Mr. Penzler, renown editor and publisher, in the introduction to the anthology, notes that as society changed in the 20th century “modest numbers of blacks entered such mainstream elements of the culture as academia, law, medicine, science, and the arts.” However, “very few...detective novels” were written by African American writers, and it was not until “the past twenty years or so that there has been a regular flow of detective stories by black writers.” He concludes that their “stories... transcend race and genre to fulfill their primary purpose--to inform and entertain” (emphasis added).
As in any anthology, the stories in this volume vary in quality, but all fulfill the primary purpose of fiction. Eight of the fifteen stories are by writers who wrote before the 1980s. The remaining seven are by writers who have published since the 1980s.
In two of the earlier stories, Charles W. Chesnutt and Pauline E. Hopkins use the crime genre as a framework to tell stories about the relationship between white fathers and their mulatto children.
“The Sheriff’s Children” by Chesnutt is a story of relations between White masters and their Black female slaves and the debilitating effects on the children of such relationships. The action takes place after the Civil War in the village of Troy, NC. A mulatto stranger is arrest and accused of murdering Old Captain Walker. Sheriff Campbell vows to perform his duty to protect the mulatto when a lynch mob forms. To scare the mob, the Sheriff lays down his pistol and uses his rifle. He unlocks the cell door so the mulatto can escape if the mob breaks in. When he turns from the window after encouraging the mob to disperse, the mulatto is pointing the pistol at him. The mulatto says he didn’t kill Walker and then explains why he has to kill the Sheriff. He is “Tom,” the son whom the Sheriff sold before the war along with his mother, “Cicely,” to pay his debts.
In “Talma Gordon,” Pauline E. Hopkins tells the story of racial prejudice within a family. Talma and her sister Jeannette are the daughters of Jonathan Gordon by his first wife. Dr. William Thornton examines the bodies of Jonathan, his second wife, and their son after they are pulled from the fire that burned down their house, and discovers that their throats were cut. Talma is accused of murdering them because her father left everything to his son by his second wife. Information Jeannette leaves after her death reveals that Jonathan discovered their mother was a mulatto when their son (deceased) was born with dark skin. Since Talma and Jeanette were part Negro, he left them each only $600.00.
Rudolph Fisher and Hughes Allison each wrote one traditional detective story before the 1980s. Unfortunately, these two talented writers never wrote anymore such stories.
Rudolph Fisher’s story “‘John Archer’s Nose’, first published in the January 1935 (Volume 1, #1) issue of Metropolitan Magazine”, is a closed-door mystery. Dr. John Archer and homicide detective Perry Dart, who first appeared in Fisher’s novel The Conjure Man Dies in 1932, investigate a murder in a Harlem apartment. Twenty-year-old Sonny is found dead in his bed, apparently stabbed with his own knife while he was sleeping. His sister, brother, and mother are suspects. The sister confesses, believing the mother did it. The mother confesses because Sonny had TB and she wanted to stop his suffering. Red Brown, Sonny’s friend, claims Ben’s wife was having an affair with Sonny, making Ben a suspect.
In July 1948, EQMM published a story for the first time by an African American writer. The groundbreaking story was “Corollary” by Hughes Allison. EQMM published it after Allison challenged the editor’s claim that no subject matter was taboo at the magazine. In the story, Black detective Joe Hill is brought in to question the Black chauffeur who confesses to his part in a series of robberies and the murder of five people by his White partners, but something the chauffeur says helps Joe solve an unrelated kidnapping case that begins with a finger delivered to Joe by a small Black girl.
An unpublished story by Robert Greer, one of the contemporary writers made me want to read his novels featuring private detective CJ Floyd, especially to see how Greer uses the culture of the Black community in Denver. In “Oprah’s Song” an upper class wife of a White Denver City Councilman hires two hitmen to kill a man who is training to go on Oprah’s show “America’s Best Amateur Comedians.” The plan is to make it appear that Jimmy P. Kane’s competition, Gwenette Strong, did it to keep him from competing. The real motive is jealousy. Elizabeth Riles, wife of Nelson Riles, knows he is having an affair with Gwenette and her plan is to get rid of the girl. Jimmy’s girl friend hires detective CJ Floyd and his Black female partner Flora Jean Benson to find out what really happened. It no longer seems odd for a Black PI to investigate a case involving White folks.
Two anthologies, Spooks, Spies, and Private Eyes: Black Mystery, Crime, and Suspense Fiction of the 20th Century edited by Paula L. Woods in 1995, and Shades of Black: Crime and Mystery Stories by African-American Writers edited by Eleanor Taylor Bland 2004, first introduced the short fiction of African American writers of mystery, crime, and suspense. Noir is the third anthology of African American mystery writers, and is probably the most important because Mr. Penzler’s recognition puts them solidly in the mainstream.
November 4, 2009
In my critical review of December 2008 I wrote that Good Girls Don’t Get Murdered was Percy Spurlark Parker’s only novel. In 2009, PublishAmerica published his second novel, The Good-Looking Dead Guy. The hero of The Good-Looking Dead Guy is Parker’s short story series character, the Black licensed private investigator and former University of Nevada Las Vegas football player, Trevor Oaks.
Five hours after he leaves Oaks’s office, pornography movie producer and wife of porn star Sinsa Sasion, Martin Gossinger is found dead in motel room in an unsavory section of Las Vegas. Gossinger had hired Oaks to bodyguard Sinsa during her show. Since he had Oaks’s business card, the detective was brought to the motel to identify the body. Only Gossinger’s wallet and car are missing. The killer left the jewelry and credit cards. The first impression of the police and Oaks is that the killing was a robbery gone bad.
When Oaks meets Sinsa, she tells him he still has a job. Later, Gossinger’s half brother Sam Brownlee, who hated him, hires Oaks to find Gossinger’s killer and explains that he is doing it because it is what their mother wants. Oaks decides he doesn’t have a conflict of interest between body-guarding the widow and finding the killer, but knows he will run into conflict with his friend homicide detective Joe.
Things get even more complicated when Oaks learns that several people hated Gossinger because, before going into the porn business, he walked away from several business deals, and that one of his boyfriends held a grudge because Gossinger walked out on him. As if he didn’t have enough problems, Belle Navilone, the 90 year old widow of one of the mobsters who helped build Las Vegas, hires him to keep her name out of the news stories and police files. Oaks later learns that Belle, who has interests in many businesses in Las Vegas, has an interest in Party Pets, the escort service Sam Brownlee owns.
Except for the unconvincing character of the killer, I enjoyed the novel. The functional prose speeds up and slows the pace at the right moments, and. the colorful characters fit the Las Vegas milieu. I especially enjoyed Parker’s use of misdirection to distract the reader from the real culprit.
There were a couple of things that bothered me. First is the typographical errors. On page 6, the word “than” should be “then,” and on page 11, “tattered genes” should be “tattered jeans.” These are just two of several errors. The publisher’s disclaimer that “PublishAmerica has allowed this work to remain exactly as the author intended verbatim, without editorial input” does not excuse the typographical errors that a good proofreader could have prevented. The errors do not affect the story but does make the close reader hesitate.
The second thing that bothered and interested me is the name of the Black female porn performer. I don’t approve of symbol hunting, but when an author includes what seems to be an obvious symbol, it is incumbent upon the critic to at least try to interpret the symbol if it is a symbol. Names of characters some times convey the author’s feelings about a theme more so than about the character. Eboni Tart, the name of the Black female porn performer, suggests Parker may be trying to say something about the porn industry or Black female performers in the industry or both. Regarding the first name, does Parker mean to spell “Ebony” differently but at the same time convey the character’s Blackness? Or is he commenting on “ebonics,” the so-called black English. I don’t think it is the latter because Eboni is an intelligent, sexy, beautiful, and skillful performer. The Eboni spelling is an attention getter.
The last name is the problem. “Tart” can mean sweet, like the pastry, or it can be derogatory, suggesting Eboni is no better than a prostitute or a promiscuous woman. It can also mean sharp. I think it is meant to mean both sweet, as Eboni invites Trevor to her room, and sharp, as later she cuts him out of her life because it would be bad luck to sleep with him twice.
October 3, 2009
See No Evil, the sixth novel in the Marti MacAlister series, explores the nature of evil in three plots, each of which can stand alone as fully developed stories. It is Halloween, and in her third year on the Lincoln Prairie police force, Marti finds, “‘There are just too many distractions.’” She and Vik deal with a murder, the disappearance of a street person, a flasher, and Marti and her family confront an intruder in the home she shares with her childhood friend Sharon.
The prologue introduces the first plot. An intruder, using a stolen key, enters the house while everyone is away. For nine days, he goes through the house, sometimes drinking a cup of coffee but mostly going through Joanna’s clothing, with whom he is obsessed. He plans to kill everybody in the house including the tough cop who lives there. The identity of the intruder is a surprise.
The second plot could be considered the main plot because it involves the detectives in a homicide case. Marti and Vik investigate the death of Ladiya Norris, a young woman whose body is found on the rocks on the shore of Lake Michigan. The investigation reveals the violent relationship she had with a brutal drug dealer named Knox. He, of course, becomes the prime suspect. Although they have an overwhelming amount of evidence, none of it would hold up in court against Knox. After they interview Knox’s wife Azalea, he beats her unmercifully for talking with the cops. Feeling that she has something more to tell them, Marti and Vik interview her again in the hospital. When Knox finds out, he pretends to be a cop and kidnaps her from the hospital. Knox is unaware that Azalea has died as a result of the second beating when Marti and Vik interview him again. The revelation at the end is expected but still surprising
Third plot involves Isaac, a homeless drunk, who feels he is in danger after his friend Dare disappears from the empty house into which he and Dare have recently moved. Marti likes Isaac who sometimes provides her with information. When Isaac asks detective “Mac” to help him find Dare, She convinces Vik to help look for him during their investigation of the Ladiya case. Based on clues picked up in the neighborhood where Isaac and Dare lived, they search for J. D., a 10 year-old, middle class black kid and wanna be gangster who may have knowledge about Dare’s disappearance.
The fourth plot is not about evil but functions to relieve the depressive feeling of the three other plots. Vice cops Cowboy and Slim are trying to catch a man who exposes himself to women. Upon the Captain’s order, Marti and Vik, though not pleased with having to do so, instruct them on investigative techniques, such as learning the Flasher’s moves and motives.
In each of the Marti MacAlister novels, Bland describes a little more of Marti’s domestic situation, which gives the novels a verisimilitude by showing the problems a single mother who is a police officer must face off the job. In See No Evil, Marti becomes engaged to Ben Walker, a fireman paramedic whose son, Mike, is the same age as and friends with Marti’s son Theo. A Confrontation with a school teacher about Mike illustrates how close the two parents have become. Using “we” Marti tells the teacher what she wants for her overachieving son Theo--recess and time to relax. Ben, also using “we” tells her to push his underachieving son Mike more. I believe we can look forward to the marriage of Marti and Ben.
The convention of homicide detectives handling several unrelated cases is expected in police procedural novels because that is the nature of police work. However, four separate plot situations do not constitute a fully formed story unless the plots are connected thematically or structurally. In See No Evil, the two plots involving police work are thematically connected. The third plot involving the flasher works because of the need for some comic relief.
The first plot strikes the discordant note. It fleshes out the personality of Marti’s childhood friend, Sharon, and the maturing of Marti’s daughter Joanna. Still, it seems too contrived and doesn’t flow as well into the overall story
September 7, 2009
In Keep Still, the fifth entry in Eleanor Taylor Bland’s Marti MacAlister series, the abused mother of an abused eight-year-old girl teaches her that to avoid the abuse from her father and later her older brother she must “keep still.”
Homicide detectives Marti and Vik have no idea when they investigate the deaths of Sophia Admunds, an elderly lady who broke her neck falling down basement steps, and Liddy Fields, who drowned in a motel swimming pool, that the two deaths will lead to the investigation of the disappearance of eight-year-old Natalie Beatty.
Marti and Vik investigate the possibility of matricide in the Sophia Admunds case. Policewoman Lupe Torres, assigned to help them, is given the Fields case to obtain information about her. She locates Tyrell and Tyree Laws, two sisters who were acquainted with Fields because Tyrell worked with her. Tyrell tells her how Liddy loved and got along well with kids but not with adults. Later, Tyrell is killed while jogging. As if three murders weren’t enough for the overworked trio, Campania Ortega is found dead in her garage.
At the time of the investigations, Natalie has been missing for seven years. All four victims had had contact with the Beatty family and had tried to help eight-year-old Natalie. Based on this revelation, Marti and Vik conclude that finding and questioning each member of the dysfunctional Beatty family is the key to cracking not only the four homicide cases but whether Natalie is alive or dead.
With TV psychics helping TV police authorities and real psychics occasionally helping real police, it is no surprise that Bland introduces a psychic, Ann Miller, to help find Natalie. Nor is Vik’s skepticism surprising. Marti’s belief in psychics goes back to her childhood in Chicago:
"Marti had grown up knowing half a dozen women who could ‘see.’ Miss Lucy could tell you if you were pregnant before you missed a period. Miss Dolly knew if you had sickness and approximately where it was. Aunt Rosetta Grey knew when death was coming. And, like Alma Miller, Mother Henderson had dreams."
In all of the Bland novels, Slim and Cowboy, the two vice cops who share an office with Marti and Vik, are the source of humor. They can’t resist the opportunity to tease Lupe, the new occupant. Cowboy gets a real surprise when he tells Lupe to make coffee. Unlike Marti, who sometimes simply ignores them, Lupe grabs the can of coffee, empties the grinds on the floor, and suggests Cowboy get a broom from the closet. This battle between the sexes, in addition to adding humor, also establishes the character of Lupe as a strong woman who takes no “crap” from the “he-men.”
Bland usually shows the culture or social aspects of Lincoln Prairie through Marti’s eyes. Occasionally, she presents the town through Vik’s eyes. The native son explains the high crime rate:
“It’s the drugs and gangs and the general availability of firearms added to the usual greed, fear, hate, and anger.” He sounded sad. “Town used to be like one big neighborhood.”Only in this case, it is not drugs that brings death to several people, but human evil.
No novel about a female detective is much fun without some romance. Keep Still advances the growing relationship between Marti and Ben, the fireman paramedic whom she is dating. She doesn’t want someone like her deceased husband Johnny, but “something”...she hasn’t “had before.” Preferably “something permanent, something she could rely on.” Ben’s son Mike and Marti’s son Theo are close in age and close friends. Is marriage in their future?
Bland’s handling of the child abuse theme is well done, but the connection of the Admunds’s case to the disappearance of Natalie is rather thin.
August 10, 2009
In his second novel, New England White, Stephen L. Carter asks ‘”what if’” a few black men acquired power they could use to benefit the race?
Byron Dennison, mentor to the black president of the University in Elm Harbor, Lemaster Caryle, explains to the heroine, Julia Caryle, his concept of power:
Power has to be used, or it’s not real…If you use it, people decide you're a powerful person, they get accustomed to doing what you want, and that gives you more power. Just don't ever start trying to use it for justice. People are real, justice is abstract. Abstract is when the killing starts.
The incidents that will lead Julia to understand how a handful of Black men in a secret club called the Empyreals acquired and used power begins with the death of her ex-boyfriend, Kellen Zant. She and Lemaster are driving through heavy snow down a little used road on their way to pick up their daughter Vanessa from the movies when the car slides off the road into a ditch. Exiting the car, Julia sees a dead body lying in the snow and immediately recognizes the brilliant Black economist and professor at the university, Zant.
Julia, representing the university, attends Zant’s funeral in his Arkansas hometown. Mary Mallard, a white investigative reporter, accosts Julia and claims that Zant gave Mary the first two parts of what he called “the Surplus” and hinted that Julia would have the third part. Julia has no idea what she is talking about but soon learns that other people also think she has “the Surplus.” Zant, she further discovers, left coded clues only she can decipher.
During her search, Julia discovers “the Surplus” refers to a diary about a murder that happened 30 years ago. Gina Joule, the 17-year-old daughter of a professor at the university, was killed, and it was suspected that the current U. S. President and a U. S. Senator, both of whom, along with a third white student, were Lemaster’s roommates in college, might have been involved. DeShaun Moton, a 16-year-old boy black, was identified as the killer after police fatally shot him. The sheriff at the time didn’t believe DeShaun was the killer. However, he was ordered to close the case but left a diary.
The events take place during a presidential election year in which the two candidates are the U. S. President and the U. S. Senator. The people who covet the diary believe it contains dirt that could ruin one or the other of the candidates.
Julia’s is the main narrative voice. Another narrative voice is that of Bruce Vallely, the black director of campus security at the university, who, at the urging of the Secretary of the University, investigates Zant’s murder, ostensibly to keep news of any involvement of students from leaking to the press. While Julia searches for “the Surplus,” Bruce’s main concern is finding Zant’s killer. But it is Julia who confronts the killer and later learns who was the power behind the cover up of the murder of Gina Joule.
As many other African American writers of mystery fiction have done, Carter explores African American culture, especially class differences among those he calls “the darker nation.”
The Caryles own the symbol of the upper black middle class: a “Cadillac Escalade with all the extras, color regulation black, as befitted their role as the most celebrated couple in African America’s lonely Harbor County outpost.”
And Julia constantly thinks about her position as an upper middle class woman of the “darker nation” living in Tyler’s Landing, a suburb in Harbor County, while the president’s mansion at the college is under renovation:
Here was the secret segregated truth at the heart of integration. No vandalism was committed. No crosses were burned. No epithets were uttered. The family was not attacked. It was simply ignored.
The Caryles are one of only five black families in the Landing.
Carter skillfully sustains the suspense in a well-constructed plot and satisfactorily ties up the loose ends. I didn’t, however, enjoy the novel.
Carter’s mannerism, first noticed in The Emperor of Ocean Park, of referring to black and white folks as the “darker nation” and “paler nation” respectively is annoying, as is showing page numbers only on the odd pages.
The character of the Caryles' oldest daughter, Vanessa, is unconvincing. Carter uses her to introduce the supernatural into the plot. She talks to the dead Gina to help Julia find clues.
In her search for the diary, Julia has to decipher backward writing with a mirror, anagrams, and other word games that Zant left for her alone. This is the stuff of spy novels.
June 28, 2009
Stephen L. Carter has written several nonfiction books on the law, religion, American culture, and affirmative action. Because of his background in writing nonfiction, I was skeptical about his talent as a novelist when I began reading his six hundred page first novel, The Emperor Of Ocean Park. As any good critic should, I controlled my bias against nonfiction writers writing novels and approached the novel with an open mind.
The Emperor Of Ocean Park is not a murder mystery, or whodunit it, though several dead bodies are a part of the events that trouble the narrator and main character, Talcott Garland. At the funeral of his father, Judge Oliver Garland, the emperor of the title, Talcott Garland, the Judge’s younger son, learns that certain people believe he has knowledge of the “the Arrangements” the Judge left behind, which does not refer to a will. He also discovers that his father chose him for the mission and left clues to help him find the information referred to as “the Arrangements.”
Talcott is married, has a four year old son, and is a professor of law at a small university near Washington DC. His father was a prominent judge on the Appeals Court and was denied a seat on the U. S. Supreme Court because of his friendship with Jack Ziegler, whom law enforcement agencies consider a dangerous criminal. Ziegler is the one who first reveals to Talcott the existence of “the Arrangements.” He doesn’t believe Talcott when he says he knows nothing about “the Arrangements.” Of course, Talcott doesn’t trust Ziegler. However, he begins to believe his father left something for him to do when a relative tells him his father expected him to carry out his wishes.
While going through the Judge’s things in the house he inherited in Martha’s Vineyard, Talcott notices that one of the chess pieces, a pawn, is missing from the Judge’s set. It is the first clue about the pattern the Judge wishes him to follow in his search for “the arrangements,” but at the time, he doesn’t understand what it means.
Talcott has to overcome several obstacles that interfere with his search. The first and foremost is his marriage. In the first third of the novel, his wife Kimberly is on the President’s short list of candidates for appointment to the US Court of Appeals. She believes Talcott’s seemingly odd behavior in pursuing the mission his father left for him to complete is having a negative affect on her chances, and Talcott believes she is having an affair with her boss at the law firm where she works.
His sister Mariah refuses to believe their father died of a heart attack. She keeps looking for a conspiracy and bugging Talcott with her findings that fail to show evidence of murder. He doesn’t tell her about the mission their father left for him to complete.
His older brother Addison, Talcott believes, knows something about their father that might help him but refuses to tell him, saying it is better he not know. Talcott suspects Addison already knows about the mission.
What most disturbs Talcott is the feeling he is being watched, but by whom, he doesn’t know. Add to all of these obstacles, because he is devoting so much time to his mission, he gets into trouble with the head of the university and is threaten with dismissal.
The key to the pattern he is to follow and the meaning of his father’s request is the chess problem, called a Double Excelsior, his father was trying to devise. “I remember my father's dream, to gain a measure of fame by creating the first Double Excelsior…. The Double Excelsior, but with black victorious in the end.”
The pawns, one black and one white, suggest to him that his father might have had an enemy—a white person. In chess problems, white always wins. His father, Talcott reasons, wants, in the end, for black to win.
As his search for “the Arrangements” progresses, Talcott searches for answers to two disturbing questions: Did his father hire someone to kill the two people who were in the car that hit and killed his younger sister Abigail? Why did his father buy a gun? The answers will change his image of his father as he gains insight into the man he really was.
The last scene is one of the best in the book. Talcott’s search ends during a hurricane in the Vineyard where he faces his father’s enemy. He explains his father’s actions:
My father left his Double Excelsior behind him, not on the board but in life, setting in motion his two pawns, one black, one white, matching moves, each stalking the other, one agonizing square at a time, until they reached the far side of their board on a storm-darkened beach in Oak Bluffs, where they faced each other for the final time.
I admire the effort Mr. Carter obviously put into writing the novel and his effort to construct an intricate plot. The novel’s chess game structure with the heading of each of the three sections referring to a chess problem gives the plot some intricacy but does not justify 600 pages. Nevertheless, once the reader accepts the fact that some parts are skippable, the story is enjoyable.
May 29, 2009
For this month, I have reviewed three novels that I read a couple of years ago by Charlotte Carter. She is a very talented novelist who readers of hardboiled detective fiction should enjoy. She has written eight novels, four of which feature her series amateur detective Nanette Hayes. Although Charlotte Carter has written eight novels, I couldn’t find much about her on the Internet. What little information I found shows she is a freelance editor, lives in New York, and has lived in Chicago, Canada, France, and North Africa (http://www.fantasticfiction.co.uk/c/charlotte-carter/).
The three Nanette Hayes novels that I read show the influence of hardboiled detective fiction on Carter’s storytelling. Nanette (Nan) Hayes is a beautiful 28-year-old, 5 feet 10 inches tall Black woman who describes herself as looking like Grace Jones. She has a degree in French and occasionally teaches French at the University, has a minor in music, and is a street musician who plays the saxophone. She is a wisecracking, sometimes smart aleck, individual, and, like her male counterparts in the hardboiled tradition, she has sexual encounters but unlike them, she sometimes engages in sex with a man she likes. As do many amateur fictional detectives, she sees herself as an angel of justice, and that is why she and they put themselves in harm’s way for no benefit, except the emotional comfort of knowing they have righted a wrong.
RHODE ISLAND RED
When an under cover policeman is murdered in her apartment, Nanette turns sleuth to find out who killed him and why he left $60,000 in her saxophone. Also murdered are the dead policeman’s blind girl friend and Nanette’s boyfriend. The murderer is searching for Rhode Island Red, a gold saxophone worth a million dollars. A gangster allegedly gave the saxophone to Charlie Parker to persuade to play at the gangster’s wedding because that was the only way his girlfriend would marry him. The gangster had filled the horn’s stops with gold.
In mystery fiction by Black writers, the problem of racism cannot and should not be avoid, for it often increases the verisimilitude. In her search for the gold saxophone, Nanette meets a white man who has knowledge of the saxophone and who becomes her lover. When he tells her he is obsessed with Charlie Parker and wants her to help him understand “Bird,” she observes, “Before long, I was doubled over with laughter. Racism is a stitch, ain't it? White people think you're either a half wit, genetically determined criminal or an extraterrestrial with some kind of pipeline to the spirit.”
COQ AU VIN
Nanette goes to Paris, France in the second novel of the series to find her Aunt Vivian, who Nanette’s mother believes is in trouble. In Paris, she meets Andre, a black street musician from Detroit and lives with him while searching for her aunt. Aunt Vivian finds her and tells her she intends to kill a man. She discovers that Aunt Vivian was involved in the 1930s or 1940s with a blues singer from Mississippi named Rube Haskins, that she and her husband Jerry Brainard scammed Haskins out of several thousands dollars, and then Jerry skipped with the money, leaving Vivian holding the bag. Nanette believes Aunt Vivian intends to kill Jerry and she must stop her. Nanette also gets involved in a French detective’s investigation of the murders Rube and Mary Polk, a White woman.
Andre pretty much sums up Nanette’s character for us when he tells her, “…you can’t go around like the angel of justice, saving the day for everybody—for your mother, for Vivian, for this bastard Jerry, for dead people even….”.
In the third novel in the series, Nanette is in deep depression from her failed affair with Andre in Paris. She receives a voodoo doll from her gay friend Justin, which perks her up. She buys another doll from Ida Williams, the maker, and names it Dilsey (allusion to Faulkner). She invites Ida to the club to hear her play the saxophone in the band but when Ida is fatally shot, Nanette feels it is her fault and therefore her duty to find the killer.
In this exciting novel, the good and bad people are all middle class Black folks but the motif is not racism. However, Carter can’t resist having Nanette comment on race. Nanette’s opinion on doormen:
I could compile a list as long as your arm of the mean white guys who treated me like dirt when I showed up at the fancy buildings where they stood guard. Young ones, old ones, Irish ones, Italian ones, Jewish ones. Racist doormen are a kind of equal opportunity plague.
A lot of black doormen do not like colored folks making social calls in their buildings either. Something about the fact of another Negro on the premises who isn't there as a baby-sitter or a repairman just makes them boil. I have a particularly vivid memory of one lawn jockey in red delivery, the gatekeeper in a deluxe building on Fifth Avenue and 9th Street, where I was going to a party. It had taken every bit of my breeding not to use my sax to pop him in his shiny fucking teeth.
I hope the five remaining novels are as entertaining as the first three.
The five remaining novels are Rooster’s Riff, Jackson Park, Trip Wire, Personal Effects, and Walking Bones.
April 29, 2009
Marti attends the wake of an undercover cop she knew when she was on the Chicago force. The official report lists his death as a suicide. His widow believes he was thrown off the roof of a parking garage because he had mentioned Johnny’s name. She asks Marti how she coped with Johnny’s death and expresses the belief that the deaths are connected because her husband had told her ‘”someone had dropped Johnny’s name,”’ and shortly afterward, her husband supposedly jumped off the roof.
After talking with the widow, Marti thinks about Johnny and wishes
she could close her eyes and block out the memory of Johnny sprawled in that car. She hadn’t pictured the cemetery that way. Too many trees. There was no way he’d pick that place to die.
Finding out the truth is the only way for her to ease some of the pain of his death.
Marti meets secretly with Johnny’s partner DaVon because he doesn’t want anyone in the department to know he is talking to her, which is fine with her because she also doesn’t want anyone know yet that she is looking into the circumstances of Johnny’s death. DaVon’s claim that Johnny was meeting one of his snitches and told DaVon to stay near the car is not convincing because partners always watch each other’s back, and because of his experiences in Vietnam, Johnny would never meet anyone in a place surrounded by trees.
When DaVon is killed during a raid on a crack house shortly after his talk with her, Marti feels the three deaths are connected. Johnny knew something somebody in the police department didn’t want him to reveal, and the other two men knew Johnny.
Vik decides to help his partner after she tells him about her investigation into her husband’s death. Their supervisor allows them time off from investigating a fire that burned down a bar while the state is determining to which ethnic or racial group the bones found under the foundation belong.
Marti doesn’t expect to get any cooperation from the Chicago Police Department. However, to her surprise, a Black, female sergeant and team leader on the narcotic squad worried that the chief of the narcotic division wants to get rid of her offers her help. She also has seen some suspicious activities, such as drug dealers knowing when a raid is about to go down.
Marti discovers that she already possesses the most important clue: a deck of playing cards Johnny used to keep notes, which may explain why he was killed if she can crack the code.
DONE WRONG makes up for the lack of fast-paced action in Bland’s three previous novels. As if dodging bullets from an unknown attacker, Vik and Marti are also trapped in a burning house. The main action, however, involves a killer, self-named “Diablo,” stalking and killing several police officers on the narc squad who were involved in a raid that left one teenager dead and another teenager in jail for his murder.
In DONE WRONG, Marti continues to struggle with achieving a proper balance between being a mother and having a very dangerous job, one in which her husband and the children’s father was killed. The mother side becomes even more important on the anniversary of Johnny’s death. Although his sister Joanna seems to be handling it very well, Theo is having a tough time adjusting and doesn’t want talk about his father. Mother Marti knows she must get herself and her son through the ordeal, and believes knowing the truth about his death will help.
March 21, 2009
Bland begins her third novel, Gone Quiet, suggesting that we immediately suspect a wife of murdering her abusive husband. The wife enters her husband’s bedroom and finds him dead. She “had not wanted him to die so easily,” and thought the poison she had been feeding him would make him sick and weak. She returns to her own room, dresses in clothes he would not have approved of, goes to her sister’s home, and calls her oldest daughter.
Homicide detective Marti MacAlister and her partner and Vik Jessenovik of the Lincoln Prairie police force arrive to a house full of church members who have come to view the body. The young policewoman at the door explains to Marti that the house was full of people when the officers arrived. The wife’s oldest daughter called the minister of the couple’s church before calling the police. A deacon of the church comments to Marti that the dead man has “gone quiet into the night to be with the Lord.”
The daughter and wife tell the detectives that the deceased must have had a heart attack, but the detectives, noting the position of the body, believe he was murdered. With no evidence of foul play, the case seems to come to a dead end. Vik, however, feels that the problem is “too many suspects, too little information, and alibis for the wrong people.” For him, solving the case requires old fashion “legwork and a preponderance of evidence.”
The husband was a man whom nobody really knew and, though he was the accountant for the church, he did not associate with any of the male or female members. The only thing the minister knows about him is he came to Lincoln Prairie after being discharged from the army under mysterious circumstances.
Because of the husband’s physical abuse of the stepdaughters and his biological daughter in their early years and psychological abuse of the wife, all members of the family had motives for killing him. The oldest daughter remains the prime suspect for the detectives, while we still consider the wife as the prime suspect. Another suspect is a person with a dog who was seen lurking around the house a few nights before the husband’s death. The difference between whom we suspect and whom the detectives suspect creates the tension necessary to sustain the suspense and justify the surprise ending.
Bland’s delicate handling of the subject of molestation of young girls never allows the novel to become sensational for the sake of sensation. She shows that the detective novel is capable of addressing social problems within the conventions of the genre. For Bland, the social problem is the treatment of children. In all three novels--Dead Time, Slow Burn, and Gone Quiet--children are the victims.
February 23, 2009
February 18, 2009
The societal theme of DEAD TIME, Bland’s first novel, was homeless children. In SLOW BURN, her second novel, in which detectives Marti McAlister and Vik Jessenovik investigate arson and murder, the societal theme is again children.
After fire destroys a clinic owned by Dr. James Edwards, the bodies of a twelve-year-old Black girl and the Hispanic receptionist are discovered in the debris. As if two bodies weren’t enough, Marti and Vik also investigate the suspicious death of a young man who was hit by a car and thrown down an embankment. Their caseload grows even bigger when an elderly woman is found dead in her basement, under suspicious circumstances since nothing was stolen from her house.
What causes Marti and Vik to begin an emotional slow burn as their investigation progresses is evidence that a known pimp operating in the Midwest may be furnishing twelve-year-old Black girls to older men in Lincoln Prairie. Two incidents further complicate the case. The pimp is shot and the body of the wife of the leader of the child prostitution ring is found in the couple’s home.
SLOW BURN peeks into class difference in Black American culture based on skin color. In the scene describing Marti’s interview with Dr. Edwards’s wife about the fire, Mrs. Edwards is described as having “light brown hair” that “was clipped in a short pixielike style. Her eyes were hazel, the tilt of her nose pert. She could pass for white if she wanted to, her skin was so light.”
As Marti is leaving, Mrs. Edwards says, “Sometimes you people surprise me.” Marti hates the term “you People” and takes an instant dislike to Mrs. Edwards but maintains her cool professionalism while listening to her complain about how lower class Blacks resent “blacks at our level” for not helping the poor and gives Marti a lecture on how poor Blacks having children deprive “wanted children” of resources.
We also get some indication of Marti’s emotional condition and reason for leaving a higher paying job on the Chicago police force to move to Lincoln Prairie:
Marti had not expected the ethnic diversity that she found in Lincoln Prairie. Swedes, Finns, Germans, Hispanics, Filipinos, West Indians, and African Americans coexisted with little overt friction. A nearby church celebrated occasional Croatian or Serbian masses as well as a mass in Spanish each. Sunday. She liked living in a place where her kids could go to public schools that represented so many cultures.
In Chicago they had attended a predominantly black private school where drugs and gangs weren't part of the curriculum. Now that the two high schools were going to merge, she was concerned about the impact of three thousand students at one facility. She was worried, too, about the increase in drug and gang activity here. But overall, the move out of Chicago was a good one for her children, even if real reason she came here was to have a quiet place to brood over Johnny's death.
She is “angry with the entire Chicago police force. Because they hadn’t protected him.” She does not believe he committed suicide. We can expect to read in future novels more about Johnny’s death and its affect on Marti and the children.
The personal information about the central character, homicide detective Marti McAlister, gives the novel authenticity and makes us want to read more about this strong Black woman who must balance her time between a very dangerous job and her children.
January 30, 2009
In 1992, Eleanor Taylor Bland published her first novel, DEAD TIME. Since the publication of DEAD TIME, she has published twelve novels, several mystery short stories, and edited the anthology SHADES OF BLACK: CRIME AND MYSTERY STORIES BY AFRICAN AMERICAN WRITERS. Bland is a member of Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in crime.
DEAD TIME introduces Marti MacAlister, a thirty-six year old, five feet ten, 160 pound African American homicide detective on the small police force of Lincoln Prairie, Ill (pop. 90,000), a town 60 miles north Chicago, the city in which she grew up. She spent 10 years on the Chicago police force before moving to Lincoln Prairie after her husband Johnny, also a policeman in Chicago, was killed. Marti and her two children, 14-year-old Joanna and 9-year-old Theo, live with her childhood friend Sharon and her daughter Lisa.
Marti works with three white cops: her partner Vik Jessenovik and two vice cops Slim and Cowboy. The calendars of “nearly nude models” on the walls of the small office do not bother her because she “had seen more imaginative art work at the precinct in Chicago.” Marti often acts on intuition, which is a constant source of conflict between her and the methodical Vik. For us readers, it illustrates the difference between the intuitive and systematic methods of investigation. Further, the interaction between Marti and Vik in examining the evidence is often humorous, since both arrive at the same conclusions.
The homicide investigation begins in the seedy Cramer Hotel where the night clerk, Wayne Baxter, has discovered the body of resident Lauretta Dorsey. Marti and Vik immediately note that there does not seem to be anything in the room anyone would want. However, Baxter becomes the prime suspect after they later discover he took money from the room. Another suspect is Louis Clark, a mystery man who was seen around the hotel and has a long rap sheet.
What gains our sympathy is the plight two boys who often come to the hotel at night to eat cookies put out by Doobee, a mentally challenged young man who becomes another homicide for Marti and Vik to investigate. The dead woman, they learn, sometimes gave the boys money. Because they believe the boys may have seen the killer and may be in danger, the detectives, enlisting the Social Service Department, begin a search to find the two boys before the killer does. They discover that the boys live in an abandon building with three other kids, a ten-year-old girl, a small boy, and a 13-year-old pregnant girl. The social worker calls them “throw away kids.”
As they search for the boys, Marti reflects on what it was like living in neighborhood on Chicago’s west side:
…in that city, on those streets, she had been safe. Neighbors watched out for her. The beat cop wasn't always friendly but he was there, on foot, and whether they liked him or not everyone knew him. They all knew his top priority was a crime-free shift. And, because those police officers knew their beat and the people who lived there so well, for a long time she thought they were omniscient.
For all that she could buy her children that her parents had been able to provide for her, she couldn't promise them safety. Even though they felt secure, this was not a safe or caring world if you were a child. It was a place where three little boys became invisible because so few chose to see that they were there.
This thinking and the fact that Marti is a working single mother who balances job and time with kids indicates that Bland is a social critic and suggests that in her novels, she practices social criticism. However, addressing social issues doesn’t distract from Bland’s storytelling skill.
Bland does an excellent job of maintaining the suspense as the plot moves toward the exciting climax. For all her skill, however, the presentation of characters’ back-stories through introspection rather than as a result of the police investigation is distracting for a reader such as myself who likes to watch the detectives gather information and clues.
January 23, 2009
I hope you’ll come back and read more of my critical reviews of African American writers of crime fiction. I can only post reviews once a month because it takes me a month to read, critically analyze, and read a review.