authors of mysteries fight racist culture with words
By Edvins Beitiks, San
Published February 28, 2000
MYSTERY WRITERS of color are shaking their heads over last
The acquittal of four police officers in New York for sending
19 bullets into the body of an unarmed man, on top of revelations
about corruption and brutality in the Ramparts Division
of the Los Angeles Police Department, left them with plenty
At Saturday's seminar in Koret Auditorium of San Francisco's
Main Library, a panel of minority writers showed varying
shades of surprise, anger and sadness at the latest headlines.
Gary Phillips, Lucha Corpi, Penny Mickelbury and Paula L.
Woods agreed that truth is, once again, stranger than fiction.
(Dale Furutani didn't make it due to flight cancellations.)
Phillips, author of the Ivan Monk detective series from
Berkley Prime Crime, challenged "the incredible verdict
out of Albany, N.Y. I mean, I'd love to have been a fly
on the wall in that jury room when they decided those men
were innocent. What could the jury possibly be thinking?
That four big men with guns, wearing bulletproof vests,
could be in fear of their lives from one 22-year-old man?
"And the Ramparts scandal — the biggest corruption
in the LAPD since the 1940s? Incredible. If you went to
your publisher with that scenario, they'd throw it out.
'Never happen,' they'd say."
Woods, who's been nominated for an Edgar Award for "Inner
City Blues," the story of a female LAPD officer during
the Rodney King riots, nodded. When she was writing that
book, said Woods, "I actually had an editor say, 'Cops
don't do this!' I said, 'I come from L.A. I know this can
Looking at the death of Amadou Diallo in New York, Woods
said, "This is what happens when people don't pay enough
attention to the police, when they say, 'Go and fix this
for us' without policing the police. I know I shouldn't
be surprised, with what I've seen and the characters I've
written about, but I am surprised. As a human being, I am
Even when she was writing about racist, sexist patrolmen
in the LAPD, said Woods, she tried to avoid stereotypes.
"I don't want to get into that dehumanizing business
of, 'All blacks do this, all Latinos do this, all whites
do this . . .' "
There are LAPD officers who would say, "You can't trust
a woman — they don't think the way we do," said Woods,
adding with a smile, "All I can say to that is, 'Thank
goodness.' Women officers do think differently — they think
in terms of 'to protect and to serve.' For too many officers,
the 'to serve' part has been lost."
Mickelbury, author of a mystery series featuring Carole
Ann Gibson, an African American lawyer turned private eye,
said, "Black people didn't need to hear about the revelations
of Ramparts in L.A. to know what was going on . . . They
know the police are not your friend."
In "The Step Between" (Simon & Schuster),
Mickelbury has Gibson flying to L.A. to help her family
when the LAPD turns out to be all but worthless. "My
editor said, 'Could this really happen?' and I said, 'Could
it? On a daily basis. On a daily basis!' " The proof
is in the headlines, Mickelbury pointed out — "The
headlines give us a lot of opportunities to tell good stories."
Justice in the U.S. is monetary justice, Mickelbury said:
"It depends on how much money you have. If you don't
have any money, the justice you get isn't any kind of justice
. . . It is important, as an artist, to tell the truth as
you find it and the truth is, it's a racist culture. But
once you've said that, there's no reason to keep hitting
everybody over the head with it. You just deal with it the
best you can."
Corpi, author of the Gloria Damasco detective series, including
"Black Widow's Wardrobe," said, "The most
attractive thing about writing mystery stories is that you
can create poetic justice, which I think is the only kind
of justice possible in this world."
Corpi, who lives in Oakland, has degrees from Berkeley and
San Francisco State. She uses her books "to study all
forms of racism, from the very blatant — police harassing
someone just because they're Mexican American — to the more
insidious racism inside our own families."
Corpi, a native of Mexico, grew up sneaking looks at the
one page in the local paper dealing entirely with crime,
"The Red Page." She would follow the stories of
women and poor people losing their lives while the rich
went about their business, said Corpi, "And I can remember
my grandmother saying, 'There is no justice in this world.'
I think that's why I write — to bring justice into the world."
Each writer at Saturday's seminar has had to fight attempts
by publishers, readers and critics to pigeonhole them. While
publishers were uncertain what to do with their books, readers
and critics insisted minorities be presented only in the
Phillips, who has received flak for negative portrayals
of some black characters in his latest book, "The Jook,"
said the book is "about bad people doing bad things.
Here's a football player who thinks he should have everything,
that he's owed these things, and he has no internal set
of checks . . . no conscience. You don't really have any
sympathy for this guy, but at the same time I don't want
to write down to my characters, I don't want to do that.
"If you're going to write about cities, about justice,
you've got to be honest, across the board. I don't feel
obligated for anything, other than to tell you a good story."
He's not interested in creating cardboard characters, said
Phillips, who offers rough portrayals of blacks and quirky
portrayals of whites, including former L.A. mayor Sam Yorty.
Phillips, who once considered being a comic-book artist,
said, "I had a teacher who told me, 'If you wouldn't
pay for it, don't paint it.' The same is true about writing
— if you wouldn't buy the book, don't write it."
The publishing world is white-oriented, Phillips said with
a shrug. He's had to battle to get himself marketed as something
other than "another black mystery writer, everybody
trying to get me on Oprah." Phillips doesn't expect
a massive change ("not in my lifetime"), but would
like to see a difference in what is expected of minority
writers — "instead of stereotyping us as black or Latino
of whatever, so they can keep you in this box, well, maybe
we could start thinking outside of the box."
One way to get out of the box is to keep it real, said Woods,
who is writing her second novel, "Stormy Weather."
"If you're going to write an honest police procedural,
you have to deal with what is really going on," she
said, "and as a writer, you have to be excited about
the stories and headlines coming out now. It leaves you
with lots of material to work with. Lots of material."