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Maureen T. Reddy. Traces, Codes, and Clues: Reading Race in Crime Fiction. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 2003. viii + 213 pp.

In the classic 1967 film Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, Sidney Poitier, playing Dr. John Wade Prentice, says to his father, a veteran postal carrier: "You think of yourself as a colored man. I think of myself as a man." Set during the 1960s civil rights movement and sandwiched between the assassinations of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr., the film's claim of a color blind generation of Americans is a dangerous Hollywood fantasy.

Maureen Reddy opens Traces, Codes, and Clues: Reading Race in Crime Fiction with an analysis of another classic American film—The Maltese Falcon, in which Dashiell Hammett's description of Sam Spade as a "blond Satan" is overwritten by Humphrey Bogart's darker looks. But both represent the whiteness implicit in the fair-haired and skinned "blond" that is contrasted with the conventionally not-fair Satan. And so Reedy begins to trace the racial coding of (primarily American) crime fiction. Having published three books on race in America and a trenchant critique of feminism in crime fiction, Reddy deftly exposes the white/male/heterosexual central consciousness that underpins both hard-boiled and classical mystery novels, analyzing works by more than ninety writers.

Reddy finds that collectively black women writers have taken the stronger stance to challenge the hegemonic ideology of hard-boiled crime fiction. Four series by Eleanor Taylor Bland, Barbara Neely, Valerie Wilson Wesley, and Nikki Baker come in for extended analysis. Their novels share a central black female consciousness in the context of a black community, an emphasis on black women's friendships and mothering, race and class conscious narratives, and themes and characters shaped by the complexities of black American experience. They undercut the legal system's claim to justice and objectivity where race or gender intersect with social and political realities.

Reddy's astute reading of the bestseller Devil in a Blue Dress concludes that white readers are able to distance themselves from Mosley's transgressive revision of hardboiled fiction and his critique of whiteness (a symbol of "confusion, terror, sickness, and death" [87]) by his having set the novels in the past. Yet her analysis also will surprise readers who might assume Walter Mosley incapable of a racial slip. Instead, she writes, "[t]he novel . . . has a serious racial blind spot where women are concerned" and "inadvertently plays into racist stereotypes about black men "(92, 94). Mosley's contemporary Mike Phillips (a Guyanese immigrant to England) fights back against the hardboiled valorization of whiteness by creating a character [End Page 791] like himself, a permanent outsider. But by positioning the ideology of race outside the US, he is less likely to let white American readers off the hook.

Overall, Reddy's book is as accessible to general readers as it is valuable to scholars. The only shortcoming is Reddy's too-brief synopsis of the theories of whiteness as a social and political construct. Particularly in the first chapter where the conceptual slipperiness of whiteness is acknowledged, nonspecialists will find the text's brief focus on court decisions insufficient, although Reddy does expand on the theories in the textual analyses that immediately follow. And in demonstrating the tendency of both black and white writers to treat race as a biological fact, much as readers are likely to do, she marks the conservatism of novels that replace the usually white main character with a person of color.

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Additional Information

ISSN
1080-658X
Print ISSN
0026-7724
Pages
pp. 791-792
Launched on MUSE
2004-09-01
Open Access
No
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