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  • The Modern in the Postmodern:Walter Mosley, Barbara Neely, and the Politics of Contemporary African-American Detective Fiction
  • Daylanne K. English (bio)

He was a cop by trade and I was a criminal by color.

Walter Mosley, Little Scarlet (2004)

Did white people have any idea how much energy and hope and downright stubbornness it took to live and work and try to find some fun in a place where you were always the first to be suspected, regardless of the crime?

Barbara Neely, Blanche Passes Go (2000)

Since 1990, Walter Mosley, Barbara Neely, Eleanor Taylor Bland, Anthony Gar Haywood, Nichelle Tramble, and Valerie Wilson Wesley, among other African-American authors, have chosen to write not just one detective novel but a series of detective novels. In response to that ever-expanding list of authors and works, quite a few essays and book-length studies of contemporary African-American and "ethnic" detective fiction have been published in recent years.1 Despite this scholarly attention to African-American detective fiction, the reasons for its contemporary flourishing remain mysterious. Paula Woods, a groundbreaking scholar of the fiction, has argued that the use of black detective-protagonists "lets readers know that African Americans are not just the victims or perpetrators [End Page 772] of crimes but are also those who try to correct the balance that murder upsets" (xv). In considering why so many writers are currently working in the genre, however, Woods only speculates briefly: "Perhaps as an outgrowth of the hunger Americans of all colors have developed for black writing, African American mystery writers have also begun to claim the spotlight" (xvii). Similarly, Stephen Soitos, in one of the earliest book-length studies of African-American detective fiction, notes the "recent revival of interest in the detective novel by black writers" but concludes about this revival simply that "black detective authors have gained a measure of respectability and recognition . .. as readership and acceptance of black detectives [have] become more diverse" (225). In a more recent essay, Helen Lock goes farther, arguing that "interest in [African American] detective fiction . .. can be at least partially explained by . .. [its] relevance to the realities, concerns, and history—indeed the entire epistemology—of the African American experience" (88). Although here Lock does start to get at the "why" of the question, she does not address the "when." Nicole King considers the "when" in her examination of several African-American novels published in the 1980s—a period, she asserts, that "called forth a resurgence of nostalgic affirmations black community" (212)—but her consideration of the literary-racial politics of her chosen novels, which include Mosley's Devil in a Blue Dress, does not take genre, the "what," into account. Doris Witt comes closest to solving the mystery, arguing that the detective work of Blanche White, Barbara Neely's serial protagonist, "is very centrally a decoding of contemporary United States body politics, as inflected by sexuality, gender, ethnicity, race, class, age, and (dis)ability" (166). On the contrary, Witt's argument applies not to African-American detective fiction in general, but solely to Neely's novels, and, even more specifically, to Neely's novels in contradistinction to "the urban male-oriented writings of Walter Mosley" (167). Certainly, the Blanche White series—with its female detective, sometimes rural settings, and focus on Blanche's children and lovers—does not fit comfortably into the masculinist "hard-boiled" subgenre of detective fiction that clearly includes Mosley's Easy Rawlins series. But the crime genre, more broadly conceived, serves some of the same functions for both authors.2

Mosley and Neely, along with a number of other African-American writers, have chosen a past genre because it suits their literary and political purposes. First, in writing crime novels, contemporary black writers are enacting a kind of literary-generic anachronism in order to comment on a distinct lack of progress regarding race within legal, penal, and judicial systems in the US. Walter Mosley uses crime fiction as the ideal form in which to expose and narrate the still-lived experience of what his detective [End Page 773] Easy Rawlins terms being "criminal by color" (Little Scarlet 235). Despite the Easy Rawlins novels' historical...


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