Decoding the History of Black Mysteries

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When then-President Bill Clinton cited Walter Mosley as one of his favorite mystery writers, many believed Mosley to be the first African American to find success in the genre, unaware that Chester Himes had preceded Mosley by several decades. But misperceptions like this are not uncommon, because there are as many plot twists and surprises in the history of African Americans writing mystery, crime, and suspense fiction as there are in the genre itself.

The earliest mystery fiction by African American writers appeared not in book form, but in "colored" periodicals and newspapers. Among those pioneering writers were journalists Pauline Hopkins (whose short stories, "The Mystery Within Us" and "TaIma Gordon," appeared in 1900 issues of the Colored American Magazine) and John E. Bruce (whose "The Black Sleuth" was serialized in the 1907-1908 McGirt's Reader). And while Hopkins' 1900 novel Hagar's Daughter contains mystery elements, it was Jamaican writer W. Adolphe Roberts who was the first Black to publish a mystery novel, The Haunting Hand, in 1926. Yet Roberts' effort wasn't recognized for almost three quarters of a century, perhaps because his characters were not Black.

The absence of Black characters was not unusual for mysteries of the 1920s. Called "Golden Age" mysteries, these novels were notable for the ways in which they distorted the lives of people of color.

"When we read a classic mystery of the 1920s and the people with dark skins and accents..are all servants or villains, then this tells us something important about America in the 1920s," asserts Frankie Y. Bailey, an associate professor in the School of Criminal Justice at New York's University of Albany, who uses mystery fiction to teach students about crime and mass media.

Given this distortion of Black life, the appearance of Rudolph Fisher's 1932 novel, The Conjure-Man Dies, the first mystery novel by an African American to feature Black characters, cannot be overlooked.

Fisher, an erudite physician, novelist, and personality of the Harlem Renaissance, was probably the last person one would expect to write mystery fiction, and he was certainly out of step with other African American literary figures of his time. Yet Fisher drew on his background and broad knowledge of Harlem society in crafting his groundbreaking mystery, which featured a physician sleuth, Dr. John Archer, and Perry Dart, an NYPD detective, as his putative sidekick. Their investigation of the death of an African psychic and king, Dr. Frimbo, placed Archer and Dart in the midst of Harlem locales and residents of all social strata as they unraveled the perplexing crime.

Fisher was not the only Harlem Renaissance figure to write in the mystery genre or the sub-genre of political thrillers.

Journalist, critic and novelist George Schuyler, perhaps best known for his satirical novel Black No More, wrote numerous mystery short stories for the Pittsburgh Courier under his own name and several pseudonyms, and published two political thrillers in the 1930s. During the same period, Alice Dunbar Nelson, the widow of famed poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, experimented with mystery short stories that appeared in African American periodicals. Most of these stories, however, were firmly entrenched in the Black middle class, as were their authors.

Chester Himes would break that mold. A college student whose life went awry, Himes spent almost six years in the Ohio State Penitentiary for armed robbery There, he began to write short fiction, mostly crime stories that appeared mainly in African American periodicals, though a couple were published in Esquire magazine. After his release from prison in 1936, Himes wrote more fiction and reported on current events for periodicals, including The Crisis, as did Ann Petty, best known for her classic novel of inner-city realism, The Street (1946).

In the 1940s and 1950s, Petry, Rimes and Richard Wright were in the vanguard of young writers whose work departed from the uplifting moral tales of their predecessors to embrace an edgy, naturalistic style. …