This month I took a break from reading the novels of Eleanor Taylor Bland because I needed to clear my mind from the troubles of police detective Marti MacAlister. Clearing the mind is like resting the body after a rigorous work out. To clear my mind, I decided to read Stephen L. Carter’s novel Emperor of Ocean Park, which, hopefully, I’ll discuss next month.
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.