Los Angeles Times
July 5, 2006
Diverse realities of mysteries
*A new generation of authors gives the genre a broader
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
"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?' "
"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
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
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
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
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,"
"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."