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.