A few weeks ago, NPR featured interviews with “the finest in African-American crime writers.” Usually, I keep my fiction reading in the general category, picking up classics every now and then, but rarely venturing into science fiction, mystery, or crime genres. Needless to say, I’m always appreciative of exposure to new (for me anyway) black authors. Here are NPR’s picks:
Paula L. Woods was born in Los Angeles and grew up as an only child. As a young girl, she was extremely close to her parents, who supported her love of reading and books. Her mother died when she was a senior at the University of Southern California, and she left school Before returning to finish her bachelor’s degree, she worked as a telephone operator at a hospital and became interested in inner-city trauma centers. She later earned a master’s degree in hospital administration, and she and her husband, Felix Liddell, began a consulting firm. Woods is a member of the National Book Critics Circle and frequently publishes reviews in the Los Angeles Times and other newspapers and magazines. She and her husband have collaborated on two nonfiction books about African Americans, in addition to their business partnership. In the early 1990s, Woods undertook a project of anthologizing and studying African American detective fiction. After completing this work, Spooks, Spies and Private Eyes, Woods realized there was a need for more books about a ‘savy black female who was a law enforcement professional but who was also sexy and hip and culturally grounded,’ and she decided to turn to fiction writing. (Source: Great Women Mystery Writers via Google Books)
Inner City Blues (1999) Meet Detective Charlotte Justice, a black woman in the very white, very male, and sometimes very racist LAPD. The time is 48 hours into the LA riots, and she and her fellow officers are exhausted. She saves curfew-breaking black doctor Lance Mitchell from a potentially lethal beating from some white officers — only to discover nearby the body of one-time radical Cinque Lewis, the thug who years before had murdered her husband and young daughter. Was it a random shooting or was Mitchell responsible? And what brought Lewis back to a city he’d long since fled? Charlotte’s quest for the truth behind Cinque’s death will set her at odds with the LAPD’s hierarchy, plunge her into the intricacies of LA’s gang-banging politics to its black elite, and lead her into deep emotional waters with Mitchell’s partner (and her old flame) Dr. Aubrey Scott. (View more books by Woods)
A native of Los Angeles, Gar Anthony Haywood was born on May 22, 1954. He read avidly as a child, from comic books to science fiction, and as a young adult took a job as a computer-service, which he held for nearly twenty years. His first book, 1987’s Fear of the Dark, served to introduce Gunner and launch Haywood’s career. It also won the St. Martins’ Press/Private Eye Writers of America Best First Private Eye Novel Award. Writing in the New York Times, Stewart Kellerman found some flaws in dialogue and prose in this tale of Gunner’s involvement in a bar slaying with links to the Black Panther movement, but asserted that “Haywood’s wit overcomes much of the.” Kellerman also noted that “there’s a nice twist at the end, just when readers may be getting.” Haywood followed his award-winning debut with Not Long for This World three years later, in which a do-gooder Los Angeles minister is gunned down in an apparent drive-by shooting. One suspect is nabbed, but the court-appointed defense attorney hires Gunner to find the missing driver.
In the early 1990s Haywood’s career was boosted by a chance remark that presidential candidate Bill Clinton made on the campaign trail. Asked what he had been reading lately, Clinton praised Mosley’s Devil in a Blue Dress and A Red Death, and sales for Mosley’s subsequently skyrocketed. In the end, noted Ebony‘s Christopher Benson, “Clinton’s endorsement … created new interest in Black mystery, and a demand for new voices that publishers were eager to meet.” (Read more . . .)
In All the Lucky Ones Are Dead (2000), PI Aaron Gunner comes face to face with a host of gangsta-rap power brokers and some bitter enemies from his not-so-distant past.” “Gangsta-rap superstar C. E. Digga Jones killed himself – or so it would seem. All evidence points to suicide, yet his father insists he was murdered. With a successful career, piles of money, and a beautiful family, the Digga’s life seemed picture perfect. But Gunner soon discovers that the Digga’s wife had a lethal jealous streak; his East coast rival in the business would stop at nothing to bring him down; and Bume Webb, the most feared figure in rap, had a grip on the Digga’s music only death could break.” “Meanwhile, Gunner is watching the back of Sparkle Johnson, the ultraconservative talk-show hostess whom many radio listeners in L.A. have learned to hate. Johnson doesn’t like Gunner – and he’s not too fond of her – but when a car bomb nearly takes Johnson’s life, it’s clear to both that their shared adversaries mean business. (View more books by Gar Anthony Haywood)
GARY PHILLIPS has been a community activist, a union organizer, a printer, taught incarcerated youths, a nonprofit director, and worked in electoral campaigns. Phillips writes in several mediums from novels to comic books and screenplays. His current projects include penning the adventures of Gen X private eye Nate Hollis in Angeltown, a comic book mystery mini-series series from DC Comics? Vertigo line that will drop in November. His most recent work is a collection of his Ivan Monk short stories, Monkology, out now from Dennis McMillan Publications. And bangers, an unflinching look at bangers on both sides of the law is available from Kensington. In May, 2003, Gary was awarded the Chester Himes for his works at the 8th Annual Chester Himes Black Mystery Writers conference in Oakland. It ain’t an Edgar, but what the heck. Gary lives in L.A. with his wife Gilda, their surly teenaged children Miles and Chelsea, and the semi-useless dog, Mitzy. (Source: eReader)
The Jook (2009) – Zelmont Raines was once a Super Bowl-winning wide receiver. But recurring injuries, a self-destructive lifestyleand too many run-ins with the law have submarined his career. Back in L.A. after bombing out of the European League, his one last chance is the expansion team in town, the Barons. Unfortunately for Zelmont, the roar of the crowds and the adulation of the fans-not to mention the money and the honeys that go with it-are no longer his for the taking. Bumped, the bitter athlete falls in with Wilma Wells, the smart (and fine) lawyer for the Barons. She’s got ideas Zelmont likes…and not just in the bedroom. Soon he and his friend, the switch-hitting ex-pro defensive tackle Napoleon Graham, throw in with Wells to rip off the mobbed-up owner of the Barons. It’s only then that Zelmont discovers that no matter how fast he can jook, no matter how tough he can fake, trouble is closing in on him way too fast. Mix elements of Jim Thompson with the street-smart verve of Donald Goines, add a couple of dashes of the compact delivery of Richard Stark, and you get The Jook: a crime novel where football and venal ambitions collide in the end zone. (View more books by Gary Phillips)
Happy reading, y’all.