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  • Images of Interracialism in Contemporary American Crime Fiction
  • Tarik Abdel-Monem (bio)

Racial clues have always been written into crime fiction. Sherlock Holmes was as much an anthropologist as he was a detective. The venerable investigator of Britain’s imperial empire could as easily differentiate between the footprints of a Hindu or Muslim as he could identify the Chinese origins of a tattoo by its color.1 Although these types of racialized—and often racist—depictions are no longer mainstays of the genre, race still plays a central role in many contemporary works of crime fiction. Modern writers have brought new perspectives on race, justice, and social inequalities to contemporary crime stories, infusing the crime narrative with critical race, feminist, post-colonial, gay/lesbian, and other perspectives. Today’s authors are just as likely to find evil in individual villains as they are in racism, sexism, corporate greed, or political institutions. Crime fiction has thus become more and more a platform for social commentary as well as entertainment. But if race still has meaning and relevance to the detective story, it begs the question of what the significance is of interracialism in the criminal worlds of our collective imaginations.

As America continues its Quixotic quest for a post-racial new world, an examination of our interracial imaginings poses important questions. In popular thought, miscegenation serves as an ideological symbol representing everything from racial genocide to racial harmony, from social destruction to social progress (Olumide 2002, 1–2). This article provides an overview of how ideologies of interracialism inhabit contemporary works of crime fiction. My argument is that [End Page 131] certain themes prevalent in earlier American literature have transferred quite comfortably into the modern crime genre, attesting to the longevity and persistence with which particular tropes of interracialism resound within the popular culture generally. Over 150 years after the flourishing of the tragic mulatto archetype, this recurring trope has found a welcome home in many of today’s crime novels. If one reads the crime story as a narrative about social morality, then the persistence of abject depictions of interracialism seem to affirm a continuing reluctance to perceive race-mixing favorably.

Yet we also see in modern crime novels continual reference to a competing stereotype, that of the exceptional, multiracial super-being. Here, authors employ interracialism as a remedy or apology to the legacy of racism and racial division. The multiracial person is depicted as an exceptional being with physical and mental traits superior to monoracial persons. This trope also derives some of its content from the tragic mulatto tradition, but is informed more by a willingness to depict miscegenation as a socially beneficial development. In the structured and conservative crime fiction milieu, miscegenation can thus be employed to de-center traditional conventions and make bold—or naive—statements about modern American society and the role of race or interracialism in the development of a future ethos.

The scope and depth of contemporary American crime fiction is vast and diverse. Like all forms of popular fiction, the crime story and its many sub-genres continue the process of evolution and reinvention. My exploration is a modest attempt at outlining basic contours of the more apparent—and, as I argue, the more troubling—trends relevant to depictions of interracialism in the genre. This article proceeds first by briefly outlining the tragic mulatto trope in earlier American literature, but will then concentrate on providing an overview of several contemporary works of crime fiction. All contemporary novels examined were chosen as examples of works which both feature prominent depictions of inter-racialism, and exist within modern times. Novels either written during or set in pre-Loving v. Virginia (1967) America are not examined in this article because they depict an earlier ethos about race and interracialism which departs from our contemporary zeitgeist. Four works will be examined specifically. Michael Crichton’s Rising Sun (1992), Lea Waits’ Shadows of the Spring Show (2005), and Richard Lupoff’s The Silver Chariot Killer (1996) are all works which prominently feature either or both of the interracial tropes noted above, and more importantly, deploy them to further their respective stories. I also examine Gary Hardwick’s Color...


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pp. 131-157
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