Mystery Writers Convention Held in Milwaukee
By Daniel Pryzbyla, BOOKLOVERS Literary Magazine
Published November, 1999
There is no shortage of mystery writers. The hundreds
of writers passing me in the lobby of the Hilton Hotel in
Milwaukee during the recent 30th Bouchercon conference would
attest to that fact. Here to interview Paula Woods, it was
my first opportunity to witness the mystery writers' annual
convention. Her reading at the four day convention was part
of the author's Midwest tour to promote "Inner City Blues,"
her first mystery novel.
Writers and mystery fans from across the U.S, and other
countries—male and female, young and older—gathered for
the annual awards celebration. This year's conference was
appropriately titled "Bouchercon '99; Mischief: Midwest."
Not being an avid mystery fan, the meaning of "Bouchercon"
was an intrigue. Several women working at the convention's
registration desk helped me gather its history before Woods
arrived. Bouchercon is combined from the words "Boucher"
and "convention." The annual feat is in honor
of Anthony Boucher who died in 1968. The first formalized
Bouchercon was held in 1970 in Santa Monica, California.
Boucher was a pseudonym used by William Anthony Parker White,
the long-time mystery reviewer for the New York Times Book
Review. His notable reviews appeared regularly in the San
Francisco Chronicle newspaper and Ellery Queen's Mystery
Magazine. He was the founder of Mystery Writers of America.
Boucher (White) also wrote two novels and science fiction
short stories under another pseudonym, "H.H. Holmes."
Although the lobby was buzzing with writers attending numerous
programs and readings at Bouchercon '99 during the Saturday
afternoon, I soon realized it would not be difficult to
distinguish Paula Woods in the enormous assemblage. She
is one of the handful of national minority women who has
published mystery books. Counting with her fingers to convey
the limited number of published African American female
mystery writers, she named others: Ellenore Taylor Bland,
Nora DeLoach, Valerie Wilson Wesley, Penny
Mickelbury, Nikki Baker, Lisa Saxton, Chassie West and Pamela
Born and raised in Compton, adjacent to Los Angeles, Woods
is the editor of the acclaimed anthology, "Spooks,
Spies, and Private Eyes: Black Mystery, Crime and Suspense
Fiction of the 20th Century." Compton, she explained
during our hurried lunch, was the first integrated community
near Los Angeles and also about one block south of Watts.
So, how did a middle-class, African American woman with
a bachelor's degree in English and a master's degree in
Hospital Administration become a mystery writer? It begins
with her uncle James Allen. Uncle James was the proprietor
of the Los Angeles County Museum of Arts when she was a
young girl. He would take her to the museum to see
how the art works were acquired and placed. "That's
when I wrote my first story," she reminisced. "It
was about two little girls who got lost in the art museum
and were locked inside after it closed for the day."
For Woods, the youthful mystery came full circle later in
Detective Charlotte Justice, a black woman in "the
very white, very male, and sometimes very hostile Los Angeles
Police Department" is the heroine of "lnner City Blues."
The author chose a distinct voice for her protagonist. "I
wanted to project Charlotte to be as tough as nails, yet
be feminine enough to enjoy having her nails painted."
That certainly was accomplished. Detective Justice lives
in a middle class neighborhood and has numerous friendships
with middle class, African American professionals.
But her job takes her into the violence and reality of LAPD
districts most people avoid while even driving in the protection
of their locked vehicles.
The book begins during the street rebellions following the
acquittal of police officers in the South Central district
of the infamous Rodney King beating witnessed on video tape
and seen throughout the country. Woods never pulls punches
with her genuine dialogues.
Inside a bus filled with police officers on duty, Mike Cooper,
a veteran white male colleague, sits alongside Detective
Justice and rants sarcastically: "Tell me, Justice,
do you think these homies and the pachucos give a rat's
ass about you? Do you think if we put you off this bus right
here you'd make it to the end of the block without these
fuckin' animals rippin' you to pieces? They won't even see
you; they'll just see the uniform and those gray eyes you
got and figure you for one more honky bitch cop out to oppress
their lazy asses."
His colloquial street talk falls on deaf ears. The "tough
as nails" detective responds. "Mike, I know
you're tired. So am I. But if you don't get (your fingers)
off my bra strap right now, I'm going to aim this gun at
Mister Willy there and change that Waco twang to a West
Hollywood falsetto. So why don't you save the drama for
your mama before somebody gets hurt?"
After reading "Inner City Blues," I thought for certain
Woods must have been a LAPD detective at one time. "No,"
she contended. "It took a lot of research and interviews
with women of color working in the LAPD." It's a tough
life. Divorce rate is high. Family life is difficult. "Who
wants to date a woman with a 'beeper' going off all the
time?" Many of the African American women police officers
are active in community organizations such as Big Sisters,
the YMCA or church groups. "It helps bridge the gaps
in the black community, making the female detectives real
people and not an enemy."
African American and other national minority police officers
follow similar paths of their Anglo counterparts, she noted.
"Some are second-generation. Their fathers or uncles
worked as police officers. After the '70s more women began
applying for positions in police departments."
The political, gender and racial dynamics are critical ingredients
of this superbly written book. When writing a mystery novel
about an African American female detective in any city police
department, it would be impossible for an author to ignore
these consequential issues. The every-day incidents
strengthen the murder plot and theme of "Inner City Blues"
rather than diminish them. Yet, the reader doesn't get bogged
down with the incessant nuances. Detective Justice maneuvers
back and forth between professional and inner city surroundings
with ease and reverence. Woods makes it possible to
get to know and understand detective Justice: disclosing
her history, family, friends, loves, frustrations and her
canine boxer, Beast. Thus, when she burrows like a
beaver to uncover clues in the central murder plot, it's
rational for the reader to support the heroic efforts of
detective Justice fighting for criminal justice.
"Will Charlotte still be working for the LAPD in your
next book?" The question came from another mystery
writer after Woods had completed the afternoon reading session.
"Maybe." Her answer sounded mysteriously non-committal.
Paula Woods has created an intriguing and believable character
in Detective Charlotte Justice. Mystery buffs and
other readers will enjoy pursuing her future adventures.