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Los Angeles Times
July 5, 2006

Diverse realities of mysteries
*A new generation of authors gives the genre a broader viewpoint.


Paula L. Woods’ books tackle race and gender.
(Ann Johansson / For The Times)

By Anne-Marie O'Connor, Times Staff Writer

In the mystery novels of Los Angeles author Paula L. Woods, black police Det. Charlotte Justice is haunted by history. She can't drive through Hancock Park without recalling that when Nat King Cole broke the racial barrier and moved into one of its mansions, somebody burned a cross on his lawn.

"Maybe she's trapped by the past because she sees the past in the present, " Woods said. "She can remember the stories of Nat King Cole and the cross-burning that she heard as a kid. She's an oracle, in a way: She sees the present and the past, and in some ways, foretells L.A.'s future."

Woods lives in this future and is a keen observer of the ethnic and cultural divides that preoccupy her protagonist. She has listened to real-life stories of Los Angeles policewomen who have grappled with the kind of discrimination her fictional Det. Justice battles within her own department. At a family funeral, Woods' mother met a light-skinned relative who was hiding her African roots in the white world that she moved in — inspiring a pivotal plot twist that ruins a character in Woods' new mystery, "Strange Bedfellows."

"It's really a form of self-denial," said Woods, a woman of elegance and style who says she was once mistaken for Angela Davis, as she drove by Frank Lloyd Wright's Maya Revival masterpiece in the Hollywood Hills — betraying her predilection for the haute architecture that looms above the gritty real-life crime scenes where she researches her murder mysteries. "And here's a woman who really suffers from it. It destroys her life."

The accidental investigator of Naomi Hirahara's mysteries, Mas Arai, is a Japanese gardener who conceals his own psychic mystery, as a survivor of Hiroshima. Hirahara too draws on personal history: Her father lived through the atomic bombing. She writes nonfiction on the history of Japanese gardening in California — a vocation marred by the forced internment of Japanese Americans during World War II.

"Some drivers passing my father tending someone's lawn and garden may have thought nothing of him, but in fact he had survived and witnessed one of the horrific events of the 20th century," said Hirahara, whose third Mas Arai mystery, "Snakeskin Shamisen," is just out. "I wanted to give a voice to people like this."

American popular fiction was once densely populated with the social realism of writers like John Steinbeck and Upton Sinclair. Today, these themes of social inequality have migrated to a new popular genre: crime and mystery, written by a new cast of ethnic and female authors who are transforming California's classic noir — and winning readers who are interested in a lot more than crime fiction.

After bestselling author Walter Mosley published "Little Scarlet" — set in the aftermath of the Watts riots — "my agent said, 'What's the political issue in the next one?' " he said.

"At this point there are feminist, black, Japanese writers," he said. "And they think, 'Hey, I could tell this story in this genre. Certainly the people who have had critical success have spoken more to the social implications.' "

The protagonist of the new noir is still "the existentialist hero, someone standing up against corruption in society," Mosley said. But now "there's a critique not of bad people in society, but of society itself."

The new noir, Mosley said, is not a break from the past. Mystery writer Dashiell Hammett, who famously refused to testify during the anti-Communist witch hunting of the McCarthy era, "was extraordinarily political," Mosley said. "He was the guy who wouldn't name names. He went to prison."

Race has always figured in Los Angeles noir, even back in the days when Raymond Chandler imagined Philip Marlowe as a white knight who moved uneasily against a backdrop of nonwhite Angelenos in South-Central.

Instead, the writers are reinventing the classic, in the same way Missouri humorist Mark Twain's social criticism turned Mississippi River folk tales such as "Huckleberry Finn" into attacks on slavery and social ills, Mosley said.

Key to that transformation is a shift in point of view. Stories are told through the eyes of the anonymous people who lived in Chandler's backdrop: native Angelenos like Mosley's amateur sleuth, Easy Rawlins, an aspiring member of an emerging World War II-era black middle class who must navigate the minefield of race. Women too have evolved from the days when they were the lethally seductive props of noir — treacherous pitfalls of a man's struggle for integrity. Now they are insiders, like Woods' Det. Justice — who is as disturbed by the subtle and not-so-subtle hostility of her male colleagues as she is by the brutality of the crimes she must solve.

As RJ Smith points out in his new nonfiction book, "The Great Black Way," about the World War II-era cultural renaissance on Los Angeles' Central Avenue, the new noir is not entirely new. When Missouri African American Chester Himes moved to Los Angeles in the 1940s, the crude racism that frustrated his ambitions as a Hollywood writer fueled his new takes on noir, which were published in the 1950s.

"The moral universe of black noir is different: It's about realizing good intentions don't matter any more than bad ones in a world run by white folks," Smith writes. "All choices in the end amount to one, have the same value — a value determined by people who think you are less than human."

In his latest book, the nonfiction "Life Out of Context," Mosley suggests that for many African Americans, life itself involves a noir drama in which "you see yourself and other Black people the way the police and the courts and the schools and the banks see you.... Guilty in their eyes until proven otherwise."

Not all the protagonists of the new noir are beleaguered moral beacons. Zelmont Raines, the roguish antihero of Gary Phillips' "The Jook," is a black professional athlete whose taste for crack and a hard-boiled groupie leads him into a foreign universe of high-end white-collar noir.

"The tenor of noir is that society is not what we think it is," Phillips said. "As a black writer who generally writes about black characters, you can't help but have that outsider experience."

And like "The Jook," a new cadre of female mystery writers is exploring the noir of upscale Los Angeles. Jerrilyn Farmer's investigator is a party planner; Patricia Smiley's heroine is a management consultant and Susan Kandel's sleuth is a biographer of mystery authors. Michael Connelly, the bestselling writer whose latest Harry Bosch mystery, "Echo Park," comes out in the fall, said the shift in the genre has given birth to new, deeper characters whose brushes with mortality involve deeper meditations on race, gender and class. In one of his Harry Bosch novels, "The Last Coyote," for example, Bosch tries to solve the mystery of his mother's murder, "and he goes back in time and explores the whole idea of Los Angeles being a place where the fix is in, where the underclass has no say, and murders of women who were part of the underclass were swept under the rug," Connelly said.

"Now the writers want to get involved in social investigations and social reflection, of where we're going as a society and where we've been," he said. "The framework gives you the freedom as a writer to explore racism or class or whatever you see as significant to society."

Woods said she was also influenced by another pioneer black writer, Ann Petry, who broke ground in the 1940s with her stories of men and women hemmed in by racism and sexism. Petry's books transcend any particular genre, but the slow and steady societal predation that dooms her characters has a noir sensibility as menacing as any Alfred Hitchcock film. Like Himes, Petry found herself way ahead of her times, with a starkly contemporary language that has sparked a paperback revival in recent years in Petry classics such as "The Street" (1946). The new noir also revives real-life historical events. The unflattering details of the resistance to Cole in Hancock Park were quickly brushed over. But in a May 17 documentary, "American Masters: The World of Nat King Cole," his widow, Maria Cole, recalled that neighbors not only burned a cross in their yard but also shot a bullet through the window. Charlotte Justice is named for Charlotte, Ark., which is near the place that Woods' grandfather fled after his son, Woods' father, got into a fistfight with a white kid who called him a racial slur — leaving behind a world where justice was the last thing her grandfather expected.

Justice grew up in a house built by Paul Revere Williams, a Los Angeles Modernist who was forced to be something of a stylistic chameleon to survive as the lone black architect to a rich Hollywood clientele.

Justice too feels she must be a chameleon, to survive in the Los Angeles Police Department, which in real life, became notorious for its unequal treatment of black and female cops — though she is more agitator than invisible woman.

White mystery writers also are reviving history and reexamining ethnicities that were lost in the shuffle of assimilation in an America focused on visible racial distinctions. Denise Hamilton's "Prisoner of Memory" backtracks into her own Russian heritage when her heroine opens the door to an Old World relative — and to a new world of Russian Mafia intrigue. "Many of my childhood touchstones involve Russia, and it was the language my mother, aunt and grandmother spoke at home when they didn't want us to understand," Hamilton reveals in an epilogue. Salvadoran- American mystery writer Marcos McPeek Villatoro is most known for his mysteries about Salvadoran American FBI agent Romilia Chacon. But in an upcoming novel, McPeek Villatoro will write about an Appalachian ethnic groups, the Melungeons, a dark-haired people — Elvis Presley is said to have Melungeon heritage — shunned for years because they were suspected of African ancestry.

Some Melungeons migrated to California and other points west during Jim Crow — where in some places in the South they weren't allowed to vote — to leave behind the stigma. In this new noir, America's historical baggage is the ultimate mystery, and the sleuths — its reluctant modern heirs — are as likely to piece together historic crimes as cold, hard murders. In this fictional universe, as William Faulkner once said about another history-haunted region of America, "The past is not dead; it is not even past."





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