F ebruary is Black History Month, not Black Mystery Month. However, fiction – especially pulp fiction, with its emphasis on raw emotion and experience – can be the best way to approach the sensations, as well as the actual facts, of history. Mysteries today tend to be seen as a mainly white genre, and there’s plenty of statistics, as well as the We Need Diverse Books movement, pointing out that authors of color tend to garner fewer reviews and less promotion than white authors. However, the history of mystery is as diverse as its present.
I’ve been working to learn more about the history of African-American mystery writers myself, and in the process, I wanted to bring some thoughts and recommendations to this blog. Here are a few recommended mystery reads for the month of February, including classics, historical mysteries, and stories with contemporary settings, yet strong connections to the past.
Walter Mosley is one of the most prolific and talented writers today in any genre, and he writes in enough different genres to make that a proven fact. His two mystery series are some of the most outstanding long-running series around. One stars Easy Rawlins: stand-up citizen, unlicensed private detective, and informal liaison between his diverse Los Angeles community and LA’s virulently racist police and politicians of the mid-20th century. The other features Fearless Jones, a hero for the pulps, and is also set mid-century. For the fan of Walter Mosley, here are a few recommendations….
This classic addition to Himes’ hard-boiled Harlem Detectives series has NYPD detectives “Coffin Ed” Johnson and “Grave Digger” Jones on the case for some funds stolen from a charlatan pretending to raise money for the Back-to-Africa movement. This was one of the books that Denzel Washington read to help prepare for his role in Devil in a Blue Dress.
Gary Phillips worked as a community activist for many years before going on to write mysteries, and The Underbelly draws deeply on Phillips’ connection to community and radicalism. In this short and immensely satisfying novel put out by PM Press, a homeless Vietnam vet goes searching for a friend and finds far more than he bargained for.
One of Coleman’s more introspective installments to his Moe Prager series, Onion Street has the New York PI looking into the relationship between a camp survivor, an OD’ed junkie, an underground radical group, and his own Jewish identity in a complex and thrilling mystery.
You can find copies of the books listed above via bookpeople.com.
Long Beach, California is known for sunny weather and soft breezes. Thursday, November 13th it became gloomy and overcast with rain. Some blamed this on the hoard of crime fiction fans, writers, publishers, and booksellers recently arrived in town. It was the first day of the 2014 Bouchercon, the world’s largest mystery conference, where we talked about dark stories under an eventually bright sky.
The first night, I had the honor of being invited to a dinner for the authors and supporters of Seventh Street Press, celebrating their second anniversary. It was fun to hang out with my friend Mark Pryor, creator of the Hugo Marston series, and meeting Allen Eskens, whose debut, The Life We Bury is a must-read for thriller fans, and Lori Rader-Day. Terry Shames arrived late, but had the excuse of winning The McCavity Award for best first novel on her way to dinner.
At the most entertaining panel I attended, titled Shaken, Not Stirred, writers discussed their use of drinking and bars in their work. Con Lehane, a former bartender, opened the discussion by stating that James Bond’s vodka martini is not really a martini because it is shaken. After he described the process of making a vodka martini, no one argued. Johnny Shaw said the more his characters drink, the more they surprise him. Eoin Colfer spoke of how he loved bars because a bar is a great equalizer, where anybody can walk through the door. When asked about the new smoking ban in Irish pubs, he said “It’s horrible. You can smell the men.”
The most enlightening panel I attended was Beyond Hammett, Chandler, and Spillane. Peter Rozovsky moderated a panel of learned crime writers and scholars who picked an author they felt deserved their due. Max Allan Collins, one of my favorite hard boiled writers, talked about Ennis Willie, who wrote about mobster on the run Sand in the early Sixties. Collins described the books as a Mickey Spillane imitation, but also discussed how these novels had a lot in common with Richard Stark’s Parker, who debuted the same year. Sarah Weinman, editor of Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives, an upcoming anthology of stories by female thriller authors of the forties and fifties, introduced me to Dolores Hitchens.Gary Phillips gave a history of Joe Nazel, who formed a triptych of Seventies African-American crime writers, along with Donald Goines and Iceberg Slim.
Bouchercon has proved to be a great source for upcoming books. All of us who met Mette Ivie Harrison couldn’t wait to read her new novel, The Bishop’s Wife, coming out at the end of December. Harrison, who has had an interesting history with the Mormon Church and her own faith, has written a novel based on a true crime set in her community. I also got into a conversation with Christa Faust and CJ Box as Christa talked about the research she’s doing for her next Angel Dare book, where she puts the hard-boiled ex-porn star into the world of rodeo. CJ and I were both impressed by her knowledge of the sport.
There were also personal highlights. I got to hang out with Bobby McCue and Richard Brewer, the two men responsible for hiring and re-hiring me at The Mystery Bookstore, my first book slinging job, and showing me the ropes. It was also probably one of the best Dead Dog Dinners (the meal shared by the people who remained Sunday night after the conference has closed) as we talked about the state of the industry, books that moved us, and plotted 2015 in Raleigh. And if that wasn’t enough, there was this moment with Texas Author Reavis Wortham and a cheerleading squad.
This weekend many of us crime fiction fans are in Long Beach, the site for the 2014 Bouchercon, the international mystery conference. This Crime Fiction Friday gives a nod to the conference with this story set in Long Beach by L.A. writer Gary Phillips. Phillips is one of our favorite writers here at MysteryPeople. The story first appeared in Akashic’s Mondays are Murder series.
“You’re it, Hank. Who the hell else could I lay this burden on?”
Mark coughs up more blood and I do my best to comfort my dying friend. He’s dressed in a suit I’m quite sure costs more than my parish generates in two months. His leaking blood creates a Rorschach test gone awry on his light blue shirt.
“The ambulance is coming.” I say this even though I don’t hear a siren. Which is ironic, given there’s always a peal around here, in the neighborhood where Mark and I grew up.
He smiles up at me with his red-stained teeth. “We both know that they’ll be too late. Sit me up, will you, and reach into my pocket.”
Gary Phillips has been a favorite of ours for quite some time, and we are happy to present his work as part of our Crime Fiction Friday series. This week we’re doing something a little different for Crime Fiction Friday. We’re providing a link to Capitol & Main’s site that features the first part of Gary Phillips’ The Dixon Family Chronicles, an online serialized novel in the tradition of Dickens. The story looks at a working class family in South Central, dealing with life and issues of the day, something Gary has written about for close to two decades. You can go to Capitol & Main next week for the next chapter…
“You don’t know what the hell you sayin’,” the red-eyed man blurted. He came off his barstool too fast, knocking it over as he did so. Drunk, he teetered over to Hank Dixon, who’d turned on his stool toward him but remained sitting.
“Best slow your roll, Al,” the one-handed bartender Pierre Gaston said languidly. He took hold of an empty glass between the pincers of his prosthesis. Behind him and above the bottles on a flat screen TV, played a near mute newscast about a truckers’ job action at the port…
The Ice Bucket Challenge to raise awareness and donations to combat ALS is starting to run through the crime fiction community.
Alifair Burke, author of two mystery series, one starring NYPD Detective Ellie Hatcher, and the other driven by Portland, OR, Prosecutor Samantha Kincaid, accepted the challenge from Michael Connelly, author of the Hieronymus “Harry” Bosch series and the Mickey Haller novels, who also dumped the ice water on her.
Two of the people she challenged were McKenna Jordan, owner of Houston’s Murder By The Book, and her dad, James Lee Burke, winner of the Edgar Award and writer of the Dave Robicheaux mysteries.
Some of you may of read our Get To Know piece on Gary Phillips. Many of you may already know him. Gary has been delivering great hard boiled crime fiction for close to twenty years now. Two new books show his talent, both past and present.
Monkology is an update on a limited edition originally published on MacMillan Press, collecting his short stories featuring his Compton private eye, Ivan Monk. Monk, who first appeared almost twenty years ago in Gary’s debut Violent Spring, is a two-fisted hero who is also politically aware. Now re-issued in a beautiful trade paperback with additional stories published after the edition, Monkology includes “The Socratic Method”, which serves as an interesting and suspenseful look at the kind of PI Monk is. Monkology is an entertaining twenty year overview of Gary Phillip’s character and his LA.
Phillips’ latest novel, The Warlord Of Willow Ridge, uses the housing crisis for a story that is a mix of action thriller and modern western. It starts when O’Conner, a mysterious stranger, joins a suburban community and takes over an abandoned McMansion to lay low. The once-nice gated community has gone down hill; two gangs uses other houses for methlabs and fight for territory. Now the remaining residents find more than their mortgages a threat. O’Conner finds himself being an unlikely Shane for suburbia, taking on the gangs.
As in most of his work, Phillips uses humanity to fuse pulp and politics. While enigmatic, O’Conner is a believable bad-ass. He’s an outlaw in midlife who’s personality is brought out by his interaction with the Willow Ridge residents. The residents themselves are well drawn with humor and complexity. The characterization keeps the satire from taking over the story.
Both Monkologyand The Warlord Of Willow Ridge show the range Gary has, as well as some of his reoccurring elements. The worlds he depicts may be in different shades of grey, but his characters always stand something. Monkologyshows his great past. The Warlord of Willow Ridge tells us he ain’t over yet.
Few mix politics and pulp as well as Gary Phillips. Few are as qualified. A former labor organizer and activist, he is still involved with issues in L.A. He is also one of the most well read in the genre. I spent some time with him last year in the Bouchercon book room at a table specializing in 30s and 40s pulps. He could talk about any author they had, particularly the obscure ones. It’s this combination of social awareness and bravado story telling that make him such a unique voice.
He is probably best known for his Ivan Monk private eye series. Deeply rooted in Compton, Monk owns a doughnut shop as well as his one-man investigation business. He also lives with a Japanese American judge who provides a foil both romantic and political for Monk. Picture Shaft, a bit older, a little mellower (but still a bad ass), and more civically engaged.
The first Monk book, Violent Spring, involved the discovery of a Korean merchant’s body at a groundbreaking ceremony a year after the Rodney King Riots. Monk’s search for the killer pits him against street gangs, politicians, businessman, and some bad history. In many ways it set the the standard for his body of work. Instead of using a mystery plot as a soapbox for issues, the politics serve the story, fueling Gary’s bullet paced writing. His style is something of a throwback to the hard boiled 50sauthors like Dan J. Marlowe, Peter Rabe, and early Westlake (I’m sure Gary could reference some more accurate names.)
Several of his books veer more towards the pulp side. The Jook, his story of a disgraced football player hustling to hold onto his money and glory, is practically a Once Upon A Time In The West version or noir fiction, taking practically every plotline and trope in the genre, giving a heady hard boiled mix. The Perpetrators is a violent road trip that gives any four color comic a run for its money in over the top action. He’s even written comics, most notable, Angel Town and Cowboys for Vertigo and The Rinse, a crime comic about a money launderer.
He latest novel is The Warlord Of Willow Ridge. The story concerns O’Connor, a roaming criminal who chooses a foreclosed home in a gated community to squat. He catches the eye of his neighbors and becomes their unwitting protector. It’s a mix of stranger-rides-into-town western, crime novel, and satire on the SNL crisis and post-crash suburban life. Leave it to Gary to color with more than one crayon and give us something to think about while he entertains the hell out of us.