crime fiction is booming. Three L.A. writers — heirs to
Chandler and Hammett — are blasting through old stereotypes
and injecting the black urban experience into the hard-boiled
By Scott Timberg, New
Times Los Angeles
Published May 27, 1999
Los Angeles is burning in the first scene of Paula Woods'
recently published crime novel, Inner City Blues. Bullets
fly, Molotov cocktails fall, and looters drag microwave
ovens down Pico Boulevard: "There was a deadly carnival
atmosphere in the air," Woods writes. "Gang members
and grandmothers, who usually gave each other a wide berth,
were united in their rage over the verdict and the stench
of despair that had hovered in the air since Watts blew
up in 1965."
Detective Charlotte Justice, Woods' black homicide detective,
is trying to keep the peace in South Central: "At the
corner of Rodeo and La Brea was a busy commercial district.
I bought my first forty-five (record, that is)—Fontella
Bass' 'Rescue Me'—at a record store that sat on the corner,
and down the street on La Brea was the Baldwin Theater,
where I went on my first real date." As Justice and
her fellow LAPD cops pull up to "another devastated
strip mall whose windows gaped at us like a toothless drunk,"
she has to confront the fact that her favorite thoroughfare
has become a war zone, and that she's powerless to stop
What's most striking about Inner City Blues is its depiction
of Detective Justice, who is trying to keep the peace not
only on her old turf but also in her own heart. Though the
book isn't a polemic, the motivating idea behind it is unmistakably
political: that black cops are perched between a criminal
underclass and a racist establishment that's sometimes as
bad. Instead of turning her ideology into a collection of
earnest essays on race, Woods, an anthology editor and a
lifelong L.A. resident, is inverting an old genre, proving
that the detective novel, despite its whites-only origins
and associations with law-and-order conservatism, can be
a remarkably flexible vessel.
Like a growing number of other black American writers, Woods
is taking a field with roots in reactionary politics, a
genre in which black people and minorities are usually criminals
or valets or sassy eye-rolling caricatures, and energizing
it with progressive and radical politics. Inspired by the
success of Walter Mosley—whose first novel, Devil in a Blue
Dress, was published to acclaim less than 10 years ago—these
authors are changing the complexion of the deeply traditional
world of mystery fiction.
The hard-boiled tradition that serves as Woods' model has
no black cops or black private eyes—or law-abiding black
people at all. "You got black victim, black perpetrator,"
Woods says. But that familiar formula has been turned on
its head to great success. Booksellers and book collectors—both
excellent barometers of emerging trends—call black crime
fiction the genre's hottest movement. The novels sell in
bookstores as diverse as the black-owned Eso Won in Baldwin
Hills and Mysterious Bookshop in West Hollywood to Carnival
of Books in the lily-white town of Orange. "Right now
it's the in thing," says Jim Seels, who runs A.S.A.P.,
a fine-arts press in Mission Viejo that has just published
a short story and essay by black mystery writer Gary Phillips.
"Two or three years back, it was women mystery writers—this
year it's black mystery writers." Seels finds enormous
enthusiasm from collectors at mystery conventions. "Even
if they haven't heard of Gary Phillips, when you tell them
he's a black mystery writer they say, 'Put me down.' "
And people ask him where they can find more.
While Mosley's private eye Easy Rawlins slips through Central
Avenue jazz clubs and South Central bars in the years after
World War II, the writers who have followed him—Woods, Phillips,
and Gar Anthony Haywood—set their work in contemporary L.A.,
and in a very politicized city. (The black L.A. writer John
Ridley, whose books are published by Knopf, has drawn acclaim
for his two detective novels, Stray Dogs and Love Is a Racket.
But politics and race play less central roles in his work
so far.) "One of the triggers that made me want to
write the book," says Woods, a consultant in her 40s,
sipping bottled water at a clamorous coffee shop in West
L.A., "was seeing the riots on TV and seeing that one
of the officers on patrol was black." The author, who
describes her consultant career as making up "a separate
life," speaks with a crisp, direct manner. "The
riots brought an interesting question to the table: Did
police officers of color feel any special pain or any special
anger in policing people who looked like them or their neighbors?
Did they feel any special obligation to make the streets
safe? The officers of color were both 'them' and 'us.' "
There are roughly 30 black mystery writers currently in
print from major publishing houses in this country. (The
Web site www.aamystery.com
lists about 40 from the present and past.) They include
Barbara Neely, whose maid sleuth traces black class divisions
in Boston and North Carolina, and Hugh Holton, a Chicago
police captain who adopts the tone of pulp science-fiction
for his cop books. There's also Valerie Wilson Wesley, whose
novels follow a female private eye in Newark, New Jersey,
and Robert Greer, a Denver pathologist who writes plots
about a black bounty hunter with touches of the medical
What's new in these books is their perspective. They show
us the world from a distinctly black point of view: Besides
the L.A. riots, we see white supremacist gangs (Phillips'
Perdition U.S.A.), the Million Man March (Haywood's When
Last Seen Alive), and the Watts riots and its lingering
echoes (Phillips' Bad Night Is Falling). Racist LAPD cops
show up in nearly every book by these writers. Much of this
work was made possible when Terry McMillan's Waiting to
Exhale (1992) took the white publishing establishment by
storm, showing that there was a considerable black middle-class
readership waiting to be tapped. McMillan demonstrated to
publishers that books by blacks could sell in huge numbers,
and Mosley walked through the door she kicked down. Exhale,
so far, has more than two million copies, about 650,000
of them in hardback.
One mark of a great city is that it comes with recognizable
literary images that are familiar the globe over. In New
York, Henry James' characters ruminated in Washington Square
salons, Walt Whitman wandered out of Brooklyn to sing the
body electric, and Joseph Mitchell drained pints at the
bar with the denizens of McSorley's Saloon. In Paris, Hemingway
argued with Stein and Fitzgerald in Left Bank cafes, and
existentialists brooded along the Seine. Los Angeles, by
contrast, has carved its place into the history of literature
through natural disaster and violent crime. In Day of the
Locust, Hollywood burns; the raw Santa Ana winds blow through
the essays of Joan Didion's White Album. And the crime noir
novels of Raymond Chandler have made the City of Angels
the capital of what Chandler called "the simple art
Chandler, along with fellow noirist Dashiell Hammett, put
California's cities on the literary map with hard-boiled
fiction that caught the quickened tempo of the 1930s and
'40s. Chain-smoking, lone-wolf heroes like Philip Marlowe
(Chandler) and Sam Spade (Hammett) tracked criminals with
elusive identities, their trench coats pulled tightly against
shadowed skyscrapers and darkened skies. The hero, like
the author's narrative voice, was grim, laconic, cynical.
Scholars of the hard-boiled—who define the form by its unsentimental
tone and trademark slang—point to pulp short stories like
Hammett's "Fly Paper," which appeared in the magazine
Black Mask in 1929, as originating the genre. The roots
of the style lie not only in the world of pulp crime fiction
but also in the stoic, shell-shocked heroes of Ernest Hemingway.
(Later, when the books were made into films, the movies
were called film noir by French critics because of their
pitch-black tone and dimly lit, nocturnal scenes.)
More than half a century later, a parallel universe has
taken shape. Private eyes are still approached by alluring
dames. People still disappear mysteriously and are discovered
operating under false identities—or dead. Inquiries lead
to labyrinthine conspiracies; the world is seen as a cruel
place that the detective can only partially put right. But
the detectives in this universe have emerged from the shadows
of classic hard-boiled fiction: They're noir, literally—and
as such come from a world we catch only a glimpse of in
Hammett and Chandler. While all kinds of injustices filled
the writing of these '30s writers, the tension that drives
the work of many black detective writers is racism.
"I never start with the crimes. I never start with
the people," says Gar Anthony Haywood, 44, a thoughtful
and low-key fellow with a graying goatee who is chowing
down on grits and a biscuit at Roscoe's House of Chicken
and Waffles. The scene could have come from one of his novels:
It's just after church services, and scores of people, most
of them black and formally dressed, dine on rice and beans
or fried chicken as a radio station plays soul and hip-hop.
Dozens more wait in the rain outside for a table to open
up. On the sidewalk that separates the restaurant from Pico
Boulevard, a handful of disgruntled former employees pass
out flyers and complain about the way they were treated
by Roscoe's management.
Haywood writes novels—his first, Fear of the Dark (1988),
dates two years before Mosley's debut—featuring a private
eye named Aaron Gunner. "I start with: 'What do I want
to be my theme?'—with Gunner's experience as an African
American today," says Haywood. "If you don't have
that, you end up with a crime novel. Of the old school."
Haywood is after more. "You have a choice of what kind
of meat you want to put on the bones, and I want to do some
"If I have an agenda," he says, "it's to
make people more aware of what it's like to be an African
American in contemporary Los Angeles...the built-in paranoia.
I want them to see a viewpoint they may not have seen before."
In Haywood's latest work, When Last Seen Alive (1998), Gunner
is on the tail of a missing black journalist—based loosely
on Washington Post reporter Janet Cook—who creates an imaginary
drug dealer for a Pulitzer-winning story that later brings
shame to black people everywhere. Along the way the story
flashes back to the Million Man March and a black militant
group called Defenders of the Bloodline.
Even more overtly political is Gary Phillips, a man with
the body of a sumo wrestler and the voice of a soul singer.
Phillips has worked as a union organizer, community activist,
and city council campaigner. (If not for his intense and
tiny eyes, he could be an inspired creation of the actor
Charles Dutton.) Phillips wrote his first book, Violent
Spring (1994), after being fired from his job as a union
organizer and taking a UCLA extension class on mystery writing.
The book begins with detective Ivan Monk remembering the
riots at Florence and Normandie. In his second novel, Perdition
U.S.A. (1996), Monk chases a white supremacist gang. In
last year's Bad Night Is Falling, the gumshoe noses through
a black and Latino housing project that has burst into flames
and tracks a conspiracy back to the Watts riots.
A former high school football player, Phillips feels at
home at places like Oki Dog on Pico—home of the pastrami
burrito—and loves greasy soul food that reminds him of his
father's hometown in Texas. He is folksy, good-natured,
and he starts laughing before he even hears the straight
line to a joke. A gifted social chameleon, Phillips' huge,
denim-shirted frame could fit equally well in a locker room,
leading a leftist rally, or in the cultlike chatter of film
geeks. In conversation, he's a great digresser who seems
to have read and memorized every book ever written.
He calls himself a dedicated fan of noir writers like Hammett,
Chandler, and Ross Macdonald, an inheritor of the hard-boiled
writers who added depth psychology and latter-day political
liberalism. But like Woods and Haywood, Phillips knows it's
part of his job to "deconstruct" the conventions
of the genre, "twist them, turn them in a different
light." That's the fun of doing what he does, he says.
In Phillips' view, even the most enlightened writers treated
black people as an exotic species. He breaks up laughing
as he describes a passage in Ross Macdonald where private
eye Lew Archer, looking for a black suspect, wanders into
a Santa Barbara liquor store, assuming that all the blacks
in the city know each other. "He didn't have any black
friends he could go ask; he didn't know any black people,"
Phillips says. "Macdonald was a profound writer but
did not really have a great sense of the black community."
Perhaps the most famous scene of black society in noir mythology
is the opening of Chandler's Farewell, My Lovely (1940).
Phillips quotes its first line from memory: "It was
one of the mixed blocks over on Central Avenue, the blocks
that are not yet all negro." In this scene, Marlowe
and an enormous white guy named Moose Malloy walk into "a
dinge joint"—a black bar—looking for information. "Heads
turned slowly and the eyes in them glistened and stared
in the dead alien silence of another race." The color
line is so strong that they can't even get into the bar
without Moose throwing the bouncer across the room.
Bemused by the black characters in Macdonald and Chandler,
the teenaged Phillips looked elsewhere to feed his hunger
for books by and about his own folk. He loved the writing
of Donald Goines (Daddy Cool) and Iceberg Slim (Pimp, the
Story of My Life) published by the L.A.-based and black-owned
Holloway House. He found the books "very visceral,
lean, and mean and spare," with the kinds of black
heroes he knew from blaxploitation films.
Paula Woods went even deeper into the roots, uncovering
a lost history of black detective fiction. She edited the
1995 anthology Spooks, Spies and Private Eyes, which tracks
the countertradition of black mystery, crime, and suspense
fiction in the 20th century. It begins with a Edgar Allen
Poe-inspired short story that appeared in 1900 in Colored
American Magazine and continues through the Harlem Renaissance
to the explosion of black sleuths in the '90s. Woods noticed,
as she dug through old magazines and journals, that virtually
all of the older writers—like their '90s offshoots—were
motivated by political injustice. Nobody was writing black
Agatha Christie. "I didn't find many 'cozy' writers,"
she says. "Usually the books have an edge to them."
Even before editing the collection, Woods was intrigued
by the novels of Chester Himes, who serves as a Lost Father
to the entire black detective movement. Himes was a Parisian
expatriate and social realist who dashed off a hard-boiled
series in which two gruff Harlem cops—Coffin Ed Jones and
Grave Digger Johnson—busted heads in a surreal tableau of
'50s and '60s New York. Though Himes considered these novels
mere genre exercises, less important than his prison dispatches
and books of social protest, the Harlem series comprise
some of the most idiosyncratic and deeply absurd novels
in the American canon. Most were unpublished in this country
until after the author's death in 1984.
"Your parents have books in the bedroom you're not
supposed to look at," says Woods, who recalls volumes
of Himes sitting near Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer in
her childhood home. She was drawn to them for their lurid
covers—"They looked like something you really weren't
supposed to read"—and their combination of satire and
brutal honesty. "He took slices of black life—yeah,
it was skewed and he made them caricatures—but it was real."
To Gary Phillips, Himes' books fail as mysteries but succeed
as "running commentaries on race relations," showing
Himes' bitterness toward America. By the end of Himes' life,
his detectives are incapable of detecting, so overwhelmed
are they by the chaos of racism and the modern city. Crime
becomes entirely sudden and random by his final book—a "blind
man with a pistol," to borrow that desperate novel's
Woods, Phillips, and Haywood all grew up middle-class but
in a deeply segregated L.A. "My world was really black,"
recalls Phillips of his childhood in South Central. "You
go to the Sears on Vermont and Slauson, and there are black
people working there. The only white guy I ever came into
contact with—you're not gonna believe his name—was named
"Up until I was 17," says Gar Haywood, sitting
in Roscoe's at Pico and La Brea, "everything I knew
about the world took place three miles from this building."
Though their heroes and the world they move through are
black, an important key to the success of black detective
writers comes from the engagement of a white readership.
After Bill Clinton called Mosley his favorite mystery writer,
the novelist was no longer the black community's secret,
as he'd been at the very start of his career when he sold
mostly through black bookstores to a mostly black readership.
Mosley had the good fortune not only to be named by the
nation's president but to arrive at a time when white readers
were drawn to black culture.
Mosley himself—who was busy traveling during this story
and was unable to comment—has said that he was lucky to
come around when he did. He divides the history of publishing
into "B.T." and "A.T."—before Terry
McMillan and after Terry McMillan.
Another reason black writers have scored with detective
fiction is that the field's masculine, traditionally minded
readership has been broadened and loosened up by a generation
of women writers. Novelists like Sara Paretsky and Sue Grafton
"opened some space for black writers," says Richard
Yarborough, who teaches classes on black and multiethnic
detective novels at UCLA. "There's been at least 10,
15 years of softening."
But not all have been as successful as Mosley with their
mainstream publishers. Gary Phillips, for instance, was
pleased when Berkley Prime Crime, a specialty arm of the
publishing giant Penguin Putnam, signed him and brought
out two of his books in mass-market paperback that had previously
been published in trade paper by a small Oregon press. Even
better, they issued his first hardback, Bad Night Is Falling,
and contracted for and edited another manuscript—the fourth
Ivan Monk mystery—even discussing cover art. But then Berkley
dropped Phillips entirely, the same month as the hardcover
of Bad Night hit the stores, citing poor sales of the first
two Monk paperbacks, according to Berkley publicist Leslie
Schwartz. Phillips laughs when he recounts this story but
admits that it stung at the time. "They paid me for
the manuscript, then said, 'We're kicking your ass out of
The original hard-boiled writers located death and murder
in the mechanized, modern world—in its cities, specifically
California cities. By setting their stories in Los Angeles
or San Francisco, the hard-boiled writers were favoring
a special kind of villain, the man or woman who takes on
a new name or persona. People often move west because a
state with a shallow history is the best place to hide from
a ruined past; identities are especially elastic in California.
Writing with his characteristic swagger, Raymond Chandler
dismissed the genteel school of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and
Agatha Christie, ridiculing their aristocratic sleuths who
tracked murder between garden gates and Elizabethan sundials.
Hard-boiled writers, he wrote, "made most of the fiction
of the time taste like a cup of luke-warm consomme at a
spinsterish tearoom." He praised Dashiell Hammett,
who "took murder out of the Venetian vase and dropped
it into the alley" and wrote for "people with
a sharp, aggressive attitude to life. They were not afraid
of the seamy side of things; they lived there. Violence
did not dismay them; it was right down their street. Hammett
gave murder back to the kind of people who commit it for
reasons, not just to provide a corpse; and with the means
at hand, not hand-wrought dueling pistols, curare, and tropical
In '30s hard-boiled fiction—and the genre inheritors, like
the Freud-inspired Ross Macdonald and the flamboyantly sadistic
James Ellroy—a murder was rarely a discrete event that broke
the silence of a well-ordered day. The killing became a
symbol of a chaotic, and in some cases, deeply poisoned
age. The detective could solve the case but couldn't entirely
redeem the shattered world. Often by the end, as in the
film Chinatown, the sleuth—and reader—have seen just how
corrupt the world's heart is. Clarifying the case has blurred
their sense of things and brought both a temporary solution
and a deeper cynicism.
The architects of the new black noir, similarly, are taking
hard-boiled fiction—and the history of L.A.—in a new direction,
one that fits reality as they've lived it. The world still
needs repair and is layered with corruption, but the setting
and tone are different, and much of the cynicism and fatalism
"For all the mystery novels written with L.A. in the
background, you'd think it was all palm trees and beaches,"
says Haywood, who grew up in South Central and Baldwin Hills.
"There was a whole segment that was cordoned off from
the literary world," held outside the glamour of Hollywood
and the cultivated ease of Malibu and Bel Air. "The
forgotten people of Los Angeles are those who are outside
that world, who can't get in or have no interest. I was
far more interested in writing about the ordinary side of
Los Angeles, not the stuff that was overblown. About how
average this city can be, how it's like anywhere to the
Haywood talks about Aaron Gunner, his private eye and alter
ego. "The closest Gunner's ever been to the beach is
a part of Venice where, at the time, there was a lot of
black and Hispanic gang violence. It's not your typical
L.A. beach scene. I've never had him on the boardwalk watching
the girls in bikinis or whatever. I think we've had enough
of that. That's like having a private eye meet someone at
the Empire State Building."
Haywood and his peers bring us more than just a new side
of L.A. They bring a new sense of history and new points
of reference. Sometimes the history is gratuitous: In a
short story by Gary Phillips, a casual drive toward Pacoima
is a chance to mention "a section of L.A. County made
infamous by the videotaped beating of black motorist Rodney
King by the LAPD's Foothill Division." Other times
the references are more subtle. One of the important roles
of black fiction has always been to get down on paper aspects
of black experience—small, large, and in between—that aren't
chronicled in official histories. In Mosley's Black Betty
(1994), for instance, Easy Rawlins calls a redneck who picks
a fight with him a "cracker," and later explains:
"I wasn't marching or singing songs about freedom.
I didn't pay dues in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference
or the NAACP. I didn't have any kind of god on my side.
But even though the cameras weren't on me and JFK never
heard my name, I had to make my little stand for what's
right. It was a little piece of history that happened right
there in that room and that went unrecorded."
Haywood is eating a salad in the Vermont Avenue House of
Pies, near his home in Silver Lake, and discussing the turf
on which his books are set. "The names of the streets
I drop are not ones you usually read about," he says,
"because they're in the hood.' " In novels like
his, we see not only new streets but archetypal black settings.
Haywood's Gunner returns to two locations from book to book.
Both are important sources of the black community in which
his private eye moves. The first is Mickey Moore's Trueblood
Barber Shop, where Gunner keeps an office in the back. Haywood
based the place on a shop on Crenshaw where he used to get
his Afro trimmed. He imagines Mickey Moore's full of regulars.
"The talk is always the same, a lot of kidding around;
you spend half the time laughing." The second location
is a South Central bar called the Acey Deuce, on Vermont,
where "nine out of every 10 people who inhabit it were
there the night before...The liquor tends to be substandard,
but that's not why you come." It's the kind of place
built entirely around its regulars and where the management
never contemplates buying a bigger TV or better light fixtures.
"Even though the place is a dump to the naked eye—all
the booths have holes in them, stuffing coming out, vinyl's
all cut open—what they like about it is that they all understand
that they're in the same boat, economically and politically."
When Gunner shows up, as he frequently does, he's looking
not just for a little Wild Turkey and companionship but
In almost every one of these books, the LAPD is either a
lurking threat or an outright enemy. Even as a little kid,
Phillips says, the cops were always part of his awareness
of the world. "It was an immediate concern—it was not
an abstract thing. Having grown up in South Central, you
either were—or knew someone who had been—jacked up by cops.
You go into the barber shop on a Sunday and you hear stories
about some poor brother who got pulled in by the 77th precinct.
It was like the bogeyman."
Haywood's Aaron Gunner got kicked out of the LAPD after
a fight with a bigoted cop and prefers the life of a private
eye who doesn't work for the state. Haywood's third book,
You Can Die Trying (1993), begins with the death of a racist
LAPD cop, driven out of the force for killing a 12-year-old
black robbery suspect.
"Quite frankly, I think it would be hard for me to
write a character who could function within the confines
of the department as we know it," Haywood says. "I
think it would take a lot of turning the other cheek. The
kind of conscience you'd want to give Gunner couldn't function
in that kind of environment."
Haywood says he intentionally made Gunner a man whose faults
and weaknesses are on the surface. (One of the most frequently
quoted lines about Walter Mosley is his statement that his
hero, Easy Rawlins, is a flawed man because to survive in
America, a black man has to be flawed.) Instead of a white
knight who sweeps in heroically, he's a short, balding guy
who often wears his self-doubt on his sleeve. By the end
of each book, Haywood tries to take Gunner's "from
relative ignorance to enlightenment," to reflect the
kind of journey most people make.
Haywood says it's important that he not cave in to the pressure
to create a morally impeccable "role model" character.
"I don't see what the fascination is with a character
who's bigger, stronger, smarter, wiser than the person reading
the book," Haywood says. "Gunner's basically me,
with a little bit more courage. That makes for a character
that a reader can see as real and three-dimensional. When
someone who's from South Central picks up a Gunner book,
they're not lost—they relate to the world where he's at."
For his part, Phillips has unshackled himself completely
from the demand to create a goody-two-shoes hero with his
current project, The Jook, which L.A.'s Really Good Books
will publish in the fall. "Now I've done a crime novel,"
he says with a laugh. "Just about venal, amoral characters
with no redemption."
There's another powerful set of differences between the
heroes of new and old noir: These black heroes are warmer
and more connected to the human race than their white counterparts
from the '30s and '40s.
In The Maltese Falcon (1930), Sam Spade rents a utilitarian
studio apartment, but he basically lives at his office.
His profession provides his entire identity. He resists
the advances of women, and it's hard to imagine him unwinding
after work with friends. The old noir hero operated according
to a masculine code that required him to keep a distance
from ties of family and friendship. Getting too close to
a "dame" is often his downfall. And heroes like
Spade, Marlowe, and Hammett's Continental Op were quick
to use their fists and weapons.
The hard-boiled black hero hesitates before pulling a gun
or a knife—both Mosley's Easy and Haywood's Gunner are war
veterans and have seen enough killing for a lifetime—and
prefers friends and family to glamorous alienation. Mosley's
characters sometimes discuss the myth of rugged individualism
directly. In Devil, Easy's sidekick Mouse, a vicious Texan
with a gift for down-home vernacular, calls individualism
"just a lie them white man give 'bout makin' it on
they own. They always got they backs covered."
Gar Haywood's hero is a nonconformist, but as a private
eye and as a social being, he depends upon his connections.
"Community is very important to the Gunner novels,"
says Haywood, "because Gunner is part of a large family.
As black people, we tend to be all about friends and family."
White people who fetishize the black street experience—and
who know Shaft, Superfly, and the pimp heroes of Holloway
House—think of the black private eye as a lusty, street-smart
hustler. But the writers behind the new noir have chronicled
the point of view, and the existence, of the home-owning
black middle-class with a powerful eloquence.
"I loved going home," Easy Rawlins muses in Devil
in a Blue Dress. "Maybe it was that I was raised on
a sharecropper's farm or that I never owned anything until
I bought that house, but I loved my little home. There was
an apple tree and an avocado in the front yard, surrounded
by thick St. Augustine grass....The house itself was small.
Just a living room, a bedroom, and a kitchen. The bathroom
didn't even have a shower, and the backyard was no larger
than a child's rubber pool. But that house meant more to
me than any woman I ever knew."
He sketches an even more lyrical scene in A Little Yellow
Dog (1996). "Southeast L.A. was palm trees and poverty;
neat little lawns tended by the descendants of ex-slaves....It
was beautiful and wild; a place that was almost a nation,
populated by lost peoples that were never talked about in
the newspapers or talked about on the TV. You might have
heard about freedom marchers; you might have heard about
a botched liquor store robbery...but you never heard about
Tommy Jones growing the biggest roses in the world or how
Fiona Roberts saved her neighbor by facing off three armed
Some of these writers go even farther to show a segment
of L.A. society that rarely makes an appearance in fiction.
Paula Woods' LAPD detective is at least a notch on the class
ladder above Mosley's humble Easy: Charlotte Justice comes
from the upper-middle-class of Baldwin Hills, and her mother
is a sort of black blue blood, with blue veins visible beneath
her pale skin.
Black authors who write in the '90s have an advantage over
their predecessors: They inherit a commercial culture far
more interested in financially exploiting the black consumer.
After years of being virtually ignored, the black middle-class
has become one of the decade's most sought-after markets.
The founding of magazines like Vibe and Emerge—aimed at
hip-hop fans of all races and black professionals with disposable
income—has created the need not only for more black journalists
and black cultural news but also black models and black-savvy
fashion designers. The last few years have seen an explosion
in African-American films, which have moved past Spike Lee
and Boyz N the Hood to as far-ranging in character as a
middle-class, matriarchal clan in the Midwest (Soul Food)
and aristocratic blacks in the Louisiana swamps (Eve's Bayou).
Thanks to McMillan and Mosley, more black writers are in
print than ever before. But the publishing world in general
has been slow to adapt.
"My sense is that publishers think they know how to
handle this stuff," says Haywood, who has found success
in Prime Crime Press at Berkley, the same label that dropped
Phillips. Haywood tells the story of a friend who's now
a very successful mystery writer but whose covers were originally
aimed at a "very macho, hard-boiled reader" despite
the fact that his books appealed to women. The author asked
his editor if his book jackets could be made friendlier
to a broader group of readers. "And the editor said:
'Women don't buy you. Truck drivers buy you.' And I think
we all go through that as African Americans."
The conventional wisdom in black mystery fiction has reversed
180 degrees since then. Haywood, dismayed, can only explain
it this way: Since Terry McMillan's books fly off the shelves,
everything is packaged to look like them—with flat, simplified
cover illustrations in bright primary colors. Too many of
the black detective books, he says, "have a...jambalaya
look to them," including his own paperback, It's Not
a Pretty Sight. "Why does my book have to look like
How Stella Got Her Groove Back? I grew up on The Long Goodbye,
where there was a gleaming 45 and a scantily clad babe on
"I think the underlying theme is that you have to trick
them into buying it," Haywood says. Haywood acknowledges
that his books sell most widely to black women but wonders
what would happen if they were packaged for and advertised
to men. "That's the great experiment that hasn't been
Nor is it likely to be tried anytime soon. Phillips recently
signed to Kensington Publishing for a mystery novel called
High Hand; the contract required that he have a woman protagonist.
Observers inside and outside the publishing world aren't
surprised. Even in a historically masculine genre, most
readers are female. "That's generally the mystery readership,"
says Karen Thomas, Phillips' editor at Kensington, a press
that's successfully targeted female readers and is currently
collaborating with Black Entertainment Television. "I
think they're trying to reach an audience of women who want
a strong female character who doesn't have to fall in love,"
says David Hale Smith, Phillips' literary agent. "There
are tons of women out there who read straight crime novels."
The whims of the publishing world have become even more
clear for Gary Phillips, especially after he was dropped
by Berkley—Haywood's publisher—last July.
"I think it's so unfair in this business to look for
overnight successes," says Haywood of Phillips, a longtime
friend. "To say, 'Okay, you're had your shot, kid,
thanks for showing up.' " Without promotional tours,
ads, publicity on radio and in the press, any writer—especially
one trying to crack a new kind of market—is bound to fail.
"Exactly what lightning bolt," Haywood wonders,
"are they counting on to strike?"
Some say that books aimed at a black readership suffer disproportionately
since these books build their sales curve more slowly and
more likely through word of mouth than a mainstream book
would. "Even when Walter's first two books [Devil and
A Red Death] came out," says James Fugate, an owner
of Eso Won, "we couldn't sell them."
L.A. publisher and pulp aficionado Marc Gerald, who sold
the black urban realism line Old School Books to W.W. Norton
several years ago, calls today's situation "really
depressing." He wonders whether New York publishers
can sell books by black authors that aren't deeply concerned
diatribes on race or novels about middle-class black women
looking for love.
"Every major publishing house used to put out a [novel]
by a black male author," he says, explaining that the
numbers fell off rapidly in the mid-'70s. Those who were
published "were crippled by the need to write 'great
books,' " to become the next Ralph Ellison or Richard
Wright. "That's the only way publishers know how to
sell black men." While publishers tend to ignore the
black male readership, "Black men are a group that
does a lot of reading from the ages of 18 to 25, but they're
doing it under the radar."
These problems have little to do with race or gender and
more to do with the strangeness that drives the book business,
says Dominick Abel, Haywood's New York-based agent. "Publishing
is an incredibly stupid business," he says. "It
doesn't make sense. Most books are not successes. Where
does that leave one? With a lot of disappointed authors—and
justifiably disappointed." He adds: "A book that
is out of the ordinary and requires special marketing to
the black community is going to have an additional obstacle."
"Most of the time the way a publisher works is they
throw a book out there and see if it starts to move,"
says David Hale Smith, Phillips' agent, who operates from
Dallas. "And if it does, they say, 'It looks like we'll
not only make our money back, but make something on it.
Now it's something we should spend money on.' It's crazy!
You'd be surprised how many publishers put a book out there
with very little support....Guys like Gary who are trying
to break new ground and say new things get to play the role
of guinea pigs."
While publishers have slept, some black authors have taken
the business of promotion and distribution into their own
hands. A literary equivalent of the Underground Railroad
has laid down tracks in the last few years. In the same
way hip-hoppers and indie rockers without major label support
peddle handmade tapes after shows from the bottom of cardboard
boxes, so black authors, shut out of major publishing houses
and lacking support from chain superstores, have set up
a new kind of network. E. Lynn Harris sold his first self-published
book, Invisible Life, out of beauty salons in the Atlanta
area. Terry McMillan sent letters to black bookstores and
professors of black fiction before her first book came out.
Others have sold books through churches, signing novels
after Sunday services. The bookstore Eso Won did this with
Michael Eric Dyson, a Columbia professor of race and culture
who's also an ordained minister. Dyson sold his book, Race
Rules, after leading services at the First A.M.E. Zion Church
in the Crenshaw district. This Sunday, the store will bring
Floyd Flake, the former New York City legislator whose new
memoir is called The Way of the Bootstrapper, to the First
Black bookstores have also transformed themselves in the
last decade. Once ideologically driven places with a dedication
to mission matched only by socialist bookstores, black bookshops
have embraced the decade's explosion of black pop writing.
(Fugate, of Eso Won, still remembers the jolt The Black
Man's Guide to Understanding the Black Woman sent through
his shop in 1990. "That was like Roots," he says,
incredulous. "It was insane.") Up-and-coming black
authors touring through black bookstores have a real advantage,
says Sally Anne McCartin, Mosley's publicist, who's based
in upstate New York. These writers skip the faceless superstores
completely and get the help of a management and staff that
takes the books they sell personally. "If I have a
young black writer starting out, I know the [black] bookstores
will help them out," McCartin says. "It's sort
of old-fashioned....I find it much harder for a middle-aged
white guy writing his first novel."
Phillips' story may someday prove typical of black writers
who don't fit into an easy slot. Dropped by Putnam/Berkley
soon after the publication of Bad Night Is Falling, he's
had no problem getting the attention of publishers who want
to aim him at a series of niche audiences. He has already
sold out the run of a limited-edition short story that's
the first fine-arts printing of a black detective writer
since Chester Himes. With a new Ivan Monk scheduled from
Colorado press Write Way Publishing next year, a stand-alone
crime book from L.A.'s fledgling Really Great Books, a novel
with a female mafia courier as protagonist at Kensington,
and plans to market a short, punchy book with Gerald through
hip-hop record stores, Phillips has landed on his feet.
In fact, Phillips, who is running the Madison Shockley campaign
for city council, will, at campaign's end, devote himself
full-time to writing for the first time in his life.
Still, some people aren't sure Phillips has been treated
fairly. "He wanted to do so much more than the standard
private eye novel," says Gerald. "He could be
someone who really breaks out. It's a great shame that a
writer like that can't find a home at a major house."
Often when a murder or disappearance takes place in a black
detective novel—from Mosley's Devil to Woods' Inner City
Blues—the black detective immediately becomes a suspect.
Just as often, he's ambushed by feelings of guilt. It's
an old noir convention: the detective who's on the side
of the law but can be taken down to the precinct for questioning
if he gets out of line, who's as clean as the cops—sometimes
cleaner—but vulnerable to being treated like a robber.
This ambiguous relationship with power—and status—is even
more central to black noir. It may be that in a subliminal
way, this image of a good individual caught between two
worlds—one criminal, one legal but not entirely accommodating—strikes
a note with a black bourgeoisie that has found itself no
less exposed as it climbs the class ladder into elite professions
like medicine and academia and law. These black writers
and readers may have more in common with Spade or Marlowe
than they imagined.
These books can be enjoyed by anyone, no matter their class
or ethnicity. But they emerge from an America in which integration—and
the movement of black people into the middle and educated
classes—is still full of false starts, disappointments,
and trapdoors. Writers like Woods, Phillips, Haywood, and
Mosley know they can't turn American society around, but
they can identify their culture's contradictions and dashed
dreams. The halting tempo of black status fills all kinds
of Americans with dismay, but it hits black people where
it counts. In that way, the new noir is the lament of a
emerging class—one still waiting, and searching, for justice.