novelists seek the places where race, class and murder converge.
By Lynell George, Los Angeles Times
Published Oct 10, 2001
It's no secret. Even longtime Angelenos find the city a
mystery, especially in the way the official story covers
one, maybe two versions of an event, while everything else
persists in the shadows. Writers Paula L. Woods and Karen
Grigsby Bates know all about L.A.'s nooks and crannies,
its stories on the fringes. As residents, they know Los
Angeles is far more duplicitous than it allows the rest
of the world to see. And as writers, they've tried to sweep
a beam of light across long-marginalized city segments,
giving readers a sense of the gears that make L.A. a working
Woods, who works variously as a book editor and critic,
is the author of two mystery novels dealing with recent
L.A. history, "Inner City Blues" (W.W. Norton,
1999), winner of the Macavity Award for best first mystery
novel, and "Stormy Weather" (W.W. Norton, 2001).
Bates, a journalist and columnist who has worked for The
Times, Salon and National Public Radio, is a West Coast
correspondent for People magazine. She, too, has
begun exploring the world of mysteries with her first foray,
"Plain Brown Wrapper" (Avon, 2001).
Their respective sleuths, Charlotte Justice and Alex Powell,
are African American professionals, Charlotte an LAPD detective
and Alex a columnist for the fictitious Los Angeles Standard.
In a recent chat, Woods and Bates discussed issues of race
and class, of projection versus reality and just how, in
a place as vast and complex as Los Angeles, people wind
through their lives—the stuff of day-to-day mystery.
Woods : Alex Powell, your protagonist, is with the Los Angeles
Standard, and mine works for the Los Angeles Police Department.
So here are people who are both insiders as opposed to the
amateur sleuth. Was there a reason that you picked a reporter?
Bates : I wanted my readers to understand some of the struggles
that a lot of black reporters have in predominantly white
newsrooms. There's this eternal push-pull. There is the
reality that you come from a community that works a certain
kind of way, that holds a certain set of values that may
be completely foreign to those who are assigning you, but
it doesn't stop the editors from forming erroneous opinions
about what your community is. So you're in this odd position
of having to correct their opinions in a way they can live
with, and still be respectful to the place that you're covering
.... I wanted to explore that tension, that dichotomy.
Woods : When I thought about the kind of contemporary Los
Angeles history—'90s into the new century—that I wanted
to write about, I thought about who would be at ground zero.
For me, it was a cop. I was really interested in addressing
a question similar to what you've described: What happens
when a person who comes to a career with a certain set of
values, thinking those values are espoused by your employer,
and you find out mid-career ... that they are not who they
pretend to be? I could see that in corporate America, and
I knew many other people who were going through the same
thing. So when the uprising occurred in 1992, and I was
watching officers of color policing their own, it gave me
the strange notion that I am both in it and of it.
Bates : That's exactly the same for reporters of color.
And I think it's very true of the people who look at the
folks who are doing this job. The people in the black community
who are looking at black members of the LAPD are like, "OK,
brother, did you pull me over because the quota thing is
happening again, or did you really think I was going 10
miles over the speed limit?"
Woods : Or "Are you a sellout because you're working
for the man?" I had a gentleman at a book signing in
Northern California ask me, did I feel that I was an apologist
for the LAPD, and by virtue of that all urban police departments,
because I chose to make my protagonist a cop? Absolutely
Bates : I did interviews at one point where somebody said
to me, "Well, I'm going to tell you this, and I know
you're going to run back to your white newspaper people
and put their spin on it because that's the way it is when
you work for them." Why could I not report on you fairly
and report accurately what you said? Part of the tension
in my job comes from my insistence on getting your stuff
right, because I know what you're talking about.
Woods : We're talking about ethical standards of the jobs.
And really, if you take your job as seriously as Alex Powell
and Charlotte Justice do, then your high standard of ethics
means doing your job right.
Bates : But they pay a price for that because they're both
called difficult by the people to whom they report.
Woods : So, it's not without costs, but I think it's worth
it. It's great to be able to explore those kinds of issues
in the books.
Bates : When our communities or our society are beset by
crime, whether it's terrorism, murder or rape—all the things
that go into mysteries and thrillers—my immediate reaction
is to think about one of the primary responsibilities I
think I have as a mystery writer, to never leave behind
an exact blueprint.
Woods : You're talking about the taking of life ... and
I don't like to approach that lightly. You really are responsible
for talking about the solutions, not the crimes.... But
what I also find interesting is that, thinking about this
black female homicide detective investigating high-profile
crimes, I thought I would have people not of color say,
"That book isn't for me." Because, unfortunately,
I've had those experiences. And so, it's real interesting
with "Stormy Weather"; people would walk up and
say, "You know, the issues that she's dealing with
are the same things that I'm dealing with in my job at IBM."
Bates : Again, it's one of the things that as writers of
color we struggle with. The fact that you are of color,
or your character may be, does not mean that you're writing
such a narrow band of experience that is inaccessible to
Woods : And that's one of the reasons why I think both of
us have a kinship in writing about the black upper-middle
class and the middle class, because that's an environment
that's not black victim or black perpetrator.
Bates : Which makes it black mythology for a lot of people.
I will tell you that I have gotten feedback from some people
who tell me just sort of flat out, "Well, we think
Alex lives a little too large."
Woods : You mean that she's above her station?
Bates : She's above her station, that her job is too good.
She eats out too often.
Woods : For a black person, you mean. Was it a black person
who said this?
Bates : Yes. It has not been a lot, but it has been a few
black people who have very pointedly said, "She has
too much." Well, she gets up and goes to work every
day. Why should she not? She's single. What's she spending
Woods : Again, it goes back to the issue of representation.
If we only appear in the urban section of the newspaper,
or in the crime blotter on the news, then ... the fact that
there might be a black reporter reporting that story, it
doesn't penetrate that that person is a highly paid professional,
and they, because of what they do, move in certain circles
and know certain things and do certain things.
Bates : Urban doesn't mean that you can't be urbane. There
is no one urban life. I see all kinds, up and down Crenshaw.
There's people walking their children to school who are
agitating like crazy to make L.A. live up to its advertised
potential. There's upscale African American urban life almost
completely ignored by the mainstream.
Woods : Charlotte Justice goes through the same thing. She
comes from a family that's upper-middle class .... She says,
"I feel like a cloth coat in a room full of mink"
in her own family. Class is something that comes out and
we can play with in interesting ways in our books. I like
being able to do it within the mystery genre, which for
me is like writing a sonnet. You know, you have certain
rules, you have certain things that you have to do, but
your subject matter, what you choose to write about, is
entirely up to you.
Bates : Did you always read mysteries? Woods: I never read
that Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys stuff. I looked at the covers
and couldn't relate. But I read Agatha Christie, Ian Fleming,
Robert Ludlum. And as time went on, I had read Chester Himes,
but hadn't known any other black people to read until Walter
Mosley came along. What's fun for me now is to tell the
story, keep the plot going, and at the same time, dip into
color consciousness among African Americans or class issues
or, in "Stormy Weather," the whole issue of perceptions
and representations of African Americans in film. The joy
is to be able to work it into a story people can follow,
but along the line, they learn a little something. Bates:
Yeah, and I think that's better than hitting them over the
head with a two-by-four.
Woods : But had I wanted to write a nonfiction book about
the riots, the uprising in '92, well, the reaction would
have been "So, who are you?" Bates: Sometimes
people digest it better if it's done in fiction. You fictionalize
the institutions that you're writing about, but the issues
are still just as real as if you were doing it for the metropolitan
daily. Woods: That's right.
Bates : Because those issues of race and of class and of
marginalization and victimization don't change just because
you're writing a 35-inch story for the newspaper or for
a novel. That's part of what attracted me to mysteries.
I don't remember loving mysteries per se as a kid. But I
do remember having great affection for books that were not
built as classic mysteries like "Rebecca" and
"Jane Eyre," which conveyed to me not just what
Mr. Rochester did with his first wife, but other things
about how people lived and thought.
Woods : Ann Perty's "The Street," that's not a
crime story per se, but it is such a realistic look at a
young woman, raising a child alone in the '40s. I see her
as a direct descendant of Jane Eyre.
Bates : Well, there used to be this delineation between
mystery and novel because of the whole pulp fiction genre,
and it seems to me that in the past 20 years, the whole
notion of mystery has gotten much more mainstream and much
more respectable, if you will, than it used to be. So that
now, there are a lot of people who sort of made it OK for
people to come out of the closet and say, "Yes, I am
a mystery reader and I like it." It doesn't hurt when
the president of the United States is seen with your book
under his arm when he goes off to the Vineyard on vacation.
Woods : I remember going to a signing that Toni Morrison
did for "Paradise," and someone asked her what
she liked to read. And her comment was, "I love mysteries!
I read them like people eat candy." And I thought,
isn't that amazing?