The Fictional Black Detective in American Literature and Film
The fictional Black detective in American Literature and film is an important topic as it pertains to representation of a group of people and inclusion in this highly popular genre. I write this article strictly from a fan’s point of view, I am by no means an expert on the topic. I am in my learning stages and I suppose in a way I am taking you on my journey of discovery with me.
According to an article that I read posted in the Los Angeles Review of Books written by Gary Phillips one of the earliest books of fiction about a black detective was published in 1932 and written by author Dr. Rudolph Fisher titled The Conjure-Man Dies: A Mystery Tale of Dark Harlem which features a Sherlock Holmes–like Dr. John Archer and police detective Perry Dart — two black investigators out to solve a murder mystery. Now it so happens that this is one of the titles that I have read, or should I say attempted to read. It was in my opinion very wordy and drawn out I failed to complete the entire book; I will eventually get back to it to finish the story, but it is in my opinion a hard read.
Then there was Hughes Allison. He is credited in 1948 as the first black writer to have a story published in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. The story was titled “Corollary,” appeared in the July issue, and featured black police detective Joe Hill based in part, on a real-life cop Carlton B. Norris, a Newark police detective.
Persia Walker has written three mystery novels set during the heyday of the Harlem Renaissance. Walker deftly mixes issues of race and class, along with actual incidents and figures, in her handling of that period. In Defender of the Angels: A Black Policeman in Old Los Angeles by Jesse Kimbrough, the reader gets a glimpse of a city in the 1920s and ’30s that is rarely depicted from a black point of view.
The Black 22s, produced by David Oyelowo (who will also star), purchased by the National Geographic channel, and billed as a black Untouchables about an all-black police squad in Prohibition-era St. Louis.
From new pulp publisher Pro Se Press, and also set in the 1920s, is Alvin Grimes’s 2014 hard-boiled novel, Black Pearl, about a World War I vet Harlem Hell fighter called Jackson Blaze. Blaze gets mixed up in a gang war between the Jewish Mafia and boss Jimmy Rose for control of the rackets in Harlem.
Debuting in the late 1990s and spanning the Prohibition era to the 1940s, the crime fiction novels of Robert Skinner feature Wesley Farrell, a mixed-race nightclub owner who passes for white.
Another pulp publisher, Airship 27 brought out two books featuring African Americans set in the 1930s. In Rutherford Jones in Trouble Times Three, written by Robert Ricci and featuring three short stories, the time is 1937 and the place is Oakland. A mousy white guy supposedly runs the Ford Jones Detective Agency — but he’s a front to assuage white clients, and his supposed black assistant Rufus is the real hard-case private investigator.
Just wanted to lay a sort of foundation as it may to the introduction of the black detective in literature and in film, many of these authors and titles I’ve never heard of but I will go back and begin reading them to see how they tackled the genre.
Getting to some that I have heard of, I will start with Walter Mosley and his Easy Rawlin’s character which one of his titles was converted into a movie “The Devil in a Blue Dress” where Denzel Washington played the starring role of Easy Rawlin’s I saw the movie but never read the book or any other of the Easy Rawlins’ stories. But I did read all of the stories in the Leonid McGill series written by Walter Mosley which wasn’t as widely received as the Easy stories, but I thoroughly enjoyed them and hope that he writes and releases more. Currently he has released a new title called “Down the River unto the Sea” a new detective tale: Joe King Oliver was one of the NYPD's finest investigators, until, dispatched to arrest a well-heeled car thief, he is framed for assault by his enemies within the NYPD, a charge which lands him in solitary at Rikers Island.
A decade later, King is a private detective, running his agency with the help of his teenage daughter, Aja-Denise. Broken by the brutality he suffered and committed in equal measure while behind bars, his work and his daughter are the only light in his solitary life. When he receives a card in the mail from the woman who admits she was paid to frame him those years ago, King realizes that he has no choice but to take his own case: figuring out who on the force wanted him disposed of--and why.
Running in parallel with King's own quest for justice is the case of a Black radical journalist accused of killing two on-duty police officers who had been abusing their badges to traffic in drugs and women within the city's poorest neighborhoods. Joined by Melquarth Frost, a brilliant sociopath, our hero must beat dirty cops and dirtier bankers, craven lawyers, and above all keep his daughter far from the underworld in which he works. All the while, two lives hang in the balance: King's client's, and King's own. I have yet to read it, but it is on my reading list.
Brian W. Smith is another author in the genre that I’ve read he has a mystery series titled: The Sleepy Carter Mysteries: He is homeless. He is a genius. He's solving the toughest murder cases in the city of New Orleans. But only one person knows he's alive.
Another author that writes in the genre I really enjoyed is author Niles Manning he has written two titles in the series called The Grainger Files.
There are others scattered here and there acclaimed actor Blair Underwood and Tananarive Due co-authored several mystery titles in the Tennyson Hardwick series. Valerie Wilson Wesley, Nora De Loach, and I’ve even come across a title written by former NBA legend Kareem Abdul Jabaar titled: Mycroft Holmes which I found interesting and I’m not sure if it has ever been done or not so don’t quote me. But as far as my understanding goes for those that are familiar with the Sherlock Holmes mythos Mycroft Holmes is the older brother to famed fictional detective Sherlock Holmes and Jabaar wrote his story with Mycroft as the antagonist sleuth.
I suppose that Mycroft Homes deviates from the black detective character in fiction, but I mention this title for two reasons. One: Kareem Abdual Jabaar is a black author. Two: It is a sedge way into the final author and title series I am going to speak on titled: Watson and Holmes which was released as a comic written by Karl Bollers and Rick Leonardi. I think that their series is interesting because they took these two classic characters updated them to today’s time and made them Black: Collecting the entire first arc of the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes and Dr John Watson re-envisioning as African Americans living in New York City's famous Harlem district. Watson, an Afghanistan war vet, works in an inner-city clinic; Holmes, a local P.I. who takes unusual cases. When one of them ends up in Watson's emergency room, the unlikely duo strikes up a partnership to find a missing girl. Watson & Holmes bump heads along the way as they enter a labyrinth of drugs, guns, gangs and a conspiracy that goes higher and deeper than they could have imagined.
Mysteries in mainstream media have generally been written by white men and the protagonists have been white men, there have been on a small occasion that some of the main characters have been black men but in the early stages they were too written by white men. In some later stories there have been black women added to stories, but they were often regulated to be the sidekicks to the black protagonists. And black female authors were very far and in between. The initial pioneer was all but forgotten, her efforts not repeated for decades. The editor of Colored American magazine, Pauline Hopkins, wrote a mystery novel in serial format in 1901-02 called Hagar's Daughter. Here, a black maid, who goes by the name Venus, is treated as an equal partner in solving the crime alongside a black male detective. Being in public domain, the book is available for free on-line. Pauline Elizabeth Hopkins (1859 – August 13, 1930) was a prominent African American novelist, journalist, playwright, historian, and editor. She is considered a pioneer in her use of the romantic novel to explore social and racial themes. Over the next several decades there had been black female lead detectives in television and in movies such as Get Christie Love in 1974 and Rashida Jones in Angie Tribeca 2016 but the writers behind these were not women, let alone women of color.
“It can be lonely. … And there have been times when I’ve retreated to my hotel room, emotionally exhausted from being visibly invisible all day.”
That’s a line from Rachel Howzell Hall’s 2015 essay, “Colored and Invisible” In the piece, Hall discusses her experience being one of only a few black writers at annual mystery conferences. The 1990s brought us several black female detectives and finally their presence was more than a rarity. Black female writers led the way it was the emergence of the Black Female Detective Written by the Black Female Author. One breakthrough came in the form of Blanche White, first appearing in Blanche on the Lam, in 1992. About the same time, Nora DeLoach came out with the character, Grace "Candi" Covington who appeared in Mama Solves A Murder, 1994, along with seven more entries in this cozy series.
The most successful mystery series featuring a black female detective began in the 1990s with Alexander McCall Smith's The Number 1 Ladies Detective Agency, 1998. Set in Botswana, the private detective Precious Ramotswe takes a mostly gentle and intuitive approach to solving crimes. Although not written by a woman it has garnered the most critical success with it’s female lead, the novel was turned into a network series on HBO starring Jill Scott in the title role released for one season in 2009.
Kellye Garrett another great author writes the Detective by Day mysteries for Midnight Ink. She was born in New Jersey After graduating with a B.S. in magazine production from Florida A&M University, she had the requisite crappy first job, working as an assistant at a daily newspaper. Thankfully, her next gig was much, much cooler. She became an assistant editor at Vibe magazine.
Since graduating with her M.F.A. in 2005, Kellye’s participated in NBC’s inaugural “Writers on the Verge” program for new writers and worked as a staff writer on the CBS crime drama Cold Case. Her episode about Japanese internment camps aired in December 2007. She also sold a procedural to Lions Gate Television and developed a cable show with the actor Idris Elba. Her first novel, Hollywood Homicide, was released by Midnight Ink in August 2017. It introduces semi-famous, mega-broke black actress Dayna Anderson, who takes on the deadliest role of her life: Homicide Detective.
I was introduced to Pamela Samuels-Young’s writing about two years ago with her “Dre series”. It’s a series containing four titles that follows the female black protagonists Angela Evans and her boyfriend Dre as they solve crimes. She is an attorney and he is a street-smart guy that came up on the wrong side of the tracks. Pamela a former television news writer, has worked as an employment attorney for Toyota, is an adjunct professor at the University of Redlands' School of Business and writes a legal column for Global Woman magazine. She is a graduate of USC, Northwestern University and UC Berkeley's Boalt Hall School of Law.
Moving on to the black detective in film, the earliest that I remember seeing on film was Richard Roundtree in the title role of Shaft. I didn’t mention this earlier in my literary black detectives because although the hero in this tale was a black man, the story (and later the movie from which the movie was adapted) was written by a white man, a classic all the same. Shaft spawned a few spin-offs all played by Richard Roundtree.
Decades later a re-boot of the Shaft movie was done and portraying the Black private dick with all the chicks, was Samuel Jackson, the nephew of the original Shaft in which Richard Roundtree reprised his role. Now, decades after that they’ve done another re-boot via Netflix both Richard Roundtree and Samuel Jackson reprise their roles and are joined with Jessie T. Usher as Samuel Jackson’s son (also John Shaft).
Others are A Man Called Hawk a television spin-off from the show Spencer For Hire. In the show A Man Called Hawk Avery Brooks played the titular role.
More recently there was Rosewood starring Morris Chestnut in the role of Miami pathologist Dr. Beaumont Rosewood, Jr. He finds secrets in people's bodies using his state-of-the-art laboratory equipment. As a sidebar I will mention the BBC detective series Luther starring Black British actor Idris Elba, which was also very well written and portrayed on screen.
These are a few examples of the diverse stories and the authors and actors of color who portrayed these sleuths in all faucets of life. It shows that the black detective be it in written word or portrayed in television or on film have a diverse, rich, and often times complex range and unique ability of getting the job done and shows that inclusion is not only necessary for the genre to grow and become more but is craved and desired by readers and purveyors of everything mystery/crime fiction.
Antwan Floyd Sr. author of 12 Months of Murder Series Piece Keeper & Cannibal in the City: Black Love Detective Series.
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