Saturday, February 4, 2017
Ask most fans of mystery novels to name a black mystery writer and chances are the first name mentioned would be Walter Mosley. Ask fans to name two more black mystery writers and you might be met with dead silence. Perhaps many of their names aren’t known, but black mystery writers and the stories they tell date back to the early 20th Century.
Writer, Paula L. Woods, in an article written for The New Crisis magazine, (September/October 2001 edition) noted that the earliest mystery fiction written by an African American didn’t appear in book form, but in “colored” periodicals and newspapers. As early as 1900, a journalists named Pauline Hopkins wrote the short stories, “The Mystery Within Us” and “Talma Gordon”, which appeared in issues of the Colored American Magazine. A writer named John E. Bruce had his mystery “The Black Sleuth” serialized in the 1907-1908 McGirt’s Reader.
It wasn’t until 1926 that the first mystery novel by a black author was published. A Jamaican writer named W. Adolphe Roberts wrote a book titled The Haunting Hand. However, none of the characters in Roberts’ book were black. Because of this it took nearly three quarters of a century for The Haunting Hand to be recognized as the first published mystery novel written by a black writer.
According to Woods, it wasn’t unusual in the 1920s for black characters to be absent from the mystery genre, even from those books written by black authors. It took twelve years before a published mystery novel, written by an African American author actually featured Black characters. The year was 1932 and the book was The Conjure Man, written by Rudolph Fisher, who was a physician and a personality of the Harlem Renaissance. The Conjure Man featured Dr. John Archer, a physician sleuth, and his sidekick, Perry Dart, a NYPD detective.
Since then, besides Mosley, there have been many other African American mystery writers, past and present, all of whom continue to entertain readers—writers such as Chester Himes, Anthony Heywood, Gary Phillips, Elizabeth Taylor Bland, Chassie West, Valerie Wilson Wesley, and yours truly, the creators of the Grandmothers, Incorporated cozy mystery series, L. Barnett Evans and C.V. Rhodes to name only a few.