Tuesday, October 5, 2021

Black History Month: 10 Crime Writers to Try

Raymond St Jacques and Godfrey Cambridge portrayed Coffin Ed Johnson and Gravedigger Jones in "Cotton Comes To Harlem", the 1970 film directed by Ossie Davis and based on a Chester Himes novel. 
 Craig every second Tuesday.

"Kia ora and gidday everyone."

It is a time of reflection for many of us here on Murder is Everywhere, as the crime and mystery writing community suffered a huge loss last week with the passing of Bill Gottfried. Bill and Toby were mainstays of many mystery writing festivals, delighting authors and attendees alike with their presence and personalities. 

I was fortunate enough to meet Bill and Toby at my first Crimefest in Bristol in 2015, shortly after moving to the UK for family reasons. Then and every time since it was terrific to chat to Bill about crime writing. He was hugely passionate about the genre, and it was always lovely to see he and Toby at festivals on 'both sides of the pond'. 

At Crimefest in Bristol in 2015 with Bill and Toby Gottfried and US reviewer and foundingNgaio Marsh Awards judge Peter Rozovsky of Detectives Beyond Borders

I didn't know Bill as well as some of my Murder is Everywhere colleagues (check out some of their posts here, here, here, and here), having only met him a few times over the years, but I am very sad I won't get to see him at another festival. It's a huge loss for our 'crime tribe'. My heart goes out to Toby and all of Bill's family and friends. 

In honour of Bill today, I thought instead of adding to the excellent posts of the past few days with further reminisces, I'd instead do what Bill loved doing and talk about and support some great crime writers. 

Since October is Black History Month in the UK (it's celebrated in February in the United States), an annual celebration of the accomplishments and culture of people of African and Caribbean heritage, I thought today I'd shine a light on some amazing black crime and mystery writers. 

I'm tempted to write a longer piece for an online magazine (maybe 31 authors for 31 days?), as there are so many terrific black crime writers creating some really amazing work. But for now, here are ten to start with. (It's terrific news for the health and depth of the genre we love that this is a mere sampling nowadays, a small fraction, rather than any sort of comprehensive list): 

Houston native Attica Locke's literary and layered storytelling has dazzled readers and critics alike (as well as audiences, more recently, with Empire, When They See Us, and Little Fires Everywhere) since her exquisite debut novel Black Water Rising in 2009. For me, Locke's fourth novel Bluebird, Bluebird, which scooped a rare Edgar-Dagger-Anthony Awards trifecta, is in the conversation for best crime novel of the past decade. It introduces black Texas Ranger Darren Mathews, whose sense of duty has him serving in a home state about which he’s deeply conflicted. A tough and honourable man under suspension after helping an old friend, a choice that threatens his job and marriage, Mathews heads to the small town of Lark in East Texas when he hears of two bodies washed up in the bayou. The first victim is a black lawyer from Chicago, the second a local white waitress. Locke weaves a masterful tale full of lyricism and insight into the complexities of people and place. The sequel Heaven, My Home is another masterpiece, and we can only hope for more from Locke soon.  

It was terrific to see Penguin Modern Classics reissue five Chester Himes recently. Like William McIlvanney before his mid 2010s renaissance, Himes is a pivotal figure in the history of crime writing who'd been unfairly overlooked or somewhat forgotten (in a wider sense, not by those he'd influenced). Himes wrote his first stories as a young man serving a 25-year prison sentence for armed robbery, then turned to detective novels while living in France in the 1950s. With his ‘Harlem Detective’ series starring formidable NYPD cops Grave Digger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson, Himes offers something quite different to his peers Chandler, Hammett, and Macdonald. Cotton Comes to Harlem sees Grave Digger and Coffin Ed digging into armed robbery and murder after conman preacher Deke O’Malley’s ‘fundraising’ drive is targeted. Can they recover the community’s money while dealing with eclectic Harlem residents and various double-crosses? Himes delivers a bawdy, violent tale that veers from tragedy to farce. There’s a fizzing energy, and Himes explores and exposes the prejudices, hypocrisies, issues, and vices of the time (in many cases, still now). Streetwise, seething fiction that clearly influenced two-time Pulitzer winner Colson Whitehead’s recent crime novel Harlem Shuffle

Last year when I was talking to British reviewer Paul Burke (of NB Magazine and Crime Time FM etc) about how Blacktop Wasteland by SA Cosby and Winter Counts by David Heska Wanbli Weiden were my top two reads of an outstanding reading year, he recommended I read a book called Three Fifths by John Vercher. Boy was Paul right! Vercher takes us back to the mid-1990s with his debut. Bobby Saraceno is a biracial young man in Pittsburgh who’s managed to ‘pass for white’ throughout his life. Reuniting with high school best pal Aaron one snowy night after Aaron is paroled from prison, Bobby’s pleased to see his fellow comic book geek. But prison’s turned Aaron from scrawny to muscled and added scars and troubling tattoos. When a black man at a diner responds to the white supremacist insignia inked on Aaron, events escalate and Bobby must confront his own identity and bigotry after he becomes entwined in a savage hate crime. What should he do next, while also dealing with an alcoholic mother and her sudden plan to introduce Bobby to the black father he never knew? Compulsive and confronting, Three Fifths is something special and I can’t wait to read Vercher’s next novel. 

It's only a few years ago I remember chatting to Ayo Onatade, a leading reviewer in the UK crime scene, about her experience being one of only three black people in the room among 1,000+ attendees at Bouchercon, the world mystery convention (crime writers Walter Mosley and Gary Phillips were the others). Fortunately, things are changing, and nowadays many black authors are getting bigger publishing deals, becoming bestsellers, winning awards, and kicking in the door for others to follow. Kellye Garrett has been a transformational figure, as a founder of Crime Writer of Color (a group of 300+ published and aspiring authors) alongside Mosley and Gigi Pandian in June 2018, and a vocal proponent of diversity, fairness, and opportunity in our genre. She also happens to be an award-winning author herself. Garrett’s debut Hollywood Homicide, starring actress turned amateur sleuth Dayna Anderson, won Agatha, Anthony, Lefty, and IBBY prizes and is a funny, engaging mystery which was so moreish I lengthened my park walk distances 2-3x so I could finish it in two days (I listened on audiobook).  A good sequel followed, but it’s Garrett's next novel, terrific thriller Like A Sister (out March 2022, worth a pre-order) that may thrust her into a new stratosphere.

Now living in Sydney, award-winning author and filmmaker Malla Nunn was born in Swaziland (now Eswatini). With her terrific Detective Emmanuel Cooper series, shortlisted for the Edgar Award among other prizes, Nunn explores the early years of neighbouring South Africa’s brutal Apartheid regime that followed the Second World War. (For several decades the white minority ruled through oppression rather than democracy, with laws enacted to enforce racial segregation and make political and economic discrimination against non-whites perfectly legal.) In A Beautiful Place to Die, Cooper is sent to a border town to investigate the death of an Afrikaner police captain. The victim’s family and powerful Security Branch try to steer Cooper towards black communists rather than any white suspects. Assisted by a Zulu constable and a local shopkeeper, Cooper digs into the truth, however politically inexpedient. He’s a tortured but honourable man in a tortuous and very dishonourable world. A stunning debut that kick-started a four-book series that announced an exciting new voice who fully embraced the idea of ‘crime fiction as the modern social novel’. More recently Nunn won the LA Times Book Prize for her young adult novel When The Ground is Hard, a story of two girls navigating economic and racial injustice at a boarding school in Swaziland.

One of a new generation of British writers of colour invigorating the crime fiction ranks on this side of the pond, London criminal defence lawyer Nadine Matheson won the City University Crime Writing Competition then earlier this year published her debut, The Jigsaw Man, an exciting serial killer debut that delivers a mix of familiarity and freshness. Detective Inspector Anjelica Henley is struggling at work and home: she’s been tethered to a desk since getting stabbed on duty, and her husband wants her to quit. As a black woman in the Met, her wider community isn’t happy with her career choice either. When body parts appear near the River Thames, she’s sucked into a case that forces her to confront past traumas. Is someone copycatting Peter Olivier, the notorious Jigsaw Killer? Or is Olivier – the man who almost killed Henley - manipulating things from prison? Matheson creates plenty of pace and tension in her debut effort and isn’t afraid to take readers into some gruesome places. A fascinating and frustrating lead, Henley is messily human. That, along with character relationships, diverse perspectives, and insights into the toll crime has on those who try to solve it makes for an intriguing read from a promising new voice. I’m looking forward to book 2.

Over the past decade Los Angeles author Rachel Howzell Hall has thrilled mystery lovers with her terrific series starring black LAPD Detective Eloise “Lou” Norton, along with some fascinating standalones including the marvellous And Now She’s Gone, a finalist for the LA Times Book Prize earlier this year. The Lou Norton books brought a new perspective to California detective fiction – a sub-genre with a storied history – and Hall’s series writing was compared favourably by critics to the likes of Raymond Chandler and Michael Connelly. More recently Hall has focused on penning some excellent standalone thrillers: They All Fall Down (something of a retelling of Agatha Christie’s iconic And There Were None, with a black female protagonist), the private eye tale meets domestic noir And Now She’s Gone, and then September 2021 release These Toxic Things. The latter continues to set Hall’s bar high, as she pulls readers into a dizzying tale of memory, secrets, and family. Mickie Lambert is a digital archivist creating technological scrapbooks for clients. When a new client, a curio shop owner diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, dies of an apparent suicide, Mickie starts receiving threats as she collects and curates the past. Hall draws us in with quality writing and a fascinating story that increases in torque as it unfolds, upturning expectations for character and readers. 

In crime writing terms, there's a strong argument Virginia author SA Cosby is THE breakout star of the pandemic. After more than twenty years of working on his craft, Cosby became an 'overnight success' last year following the publication of his second novel, heist thriller cum rural noir Blacktop Wasteland. That astonishing book, centred on getaway driver turned mechanic and family man Beauregard 'Bug' Montage, was deservedly feted across the world by readers, critics, and awards judges as heralding the arrival of a striking voice. It went on to win the LA Times, Macavity, Barry, Anthony, and ITW Thriller Awards - and frankly, should have won (Never)more. It left a big question though: how the hell would Cosby follow that up? We got our answer this year with Razorblade Tears, the tale of Ike and Buddy, black and white ex-cons brought together by a hunt for the killers of their gay sons and forced to confront the prejudices of others and themselves.  Razorblade Tears is a Southern Gothic revenge thriller of the most outstanding kind: violent, thoughtful, emotionally hard-hitting, and brilliant. Cosby writes with a poetic ferocity, and Razorblade Tears is a modern masterpiece that raises the game for crime writing. My best book of 2021. 

If Cosby, Wanbli Weiden and Vercher were my podium of 'new-to-me' author finds of last year, in a year of superb reading, then without doubt Detroit author Stephen Mack Jones will be nabbing a medal spot in 2021. Jones has earned the Hammett Prize for 'literary excellence in crime writing' for his August Snow series, and once I started reading 2021 release Dead of Winter, I could see why.  Stephen Mack Jones crafts a superb tale that blends action aplenty with rich characterisation, wonderful writing, and a strong sense of its Detroit locality. While Snow has the skills of a detective, he carries neither badge nor private eye license. Instead, he’s an honourable man who tries to help those in his local Mexicantown community, using the skills he learned as a marine and a Detroit cop. In the third and latest instalment, Snow is beseeched by a dying businessman who is being blackmailed to save Authentico Foods, its workers and the neighbourhood. Snow’s investigations entangle with issues from the ruthless whims of the billionaire class to gentrification, race relations, and inequality. Jones crafts a cracking read that’s so good I immediately bought and read the two prior books, despite my towering TBR pile  mountain range. An author with a distinctive voice and something to say. 

Last but in no way least, if you're a fan of crime writing or just good storytelling in general, you're doing yourself a disservice if you haven't read plenty of Walter Mosley. Since debuting with Devil in a Blue Dress in 1990, the first in his acclaimed historical+hardboiled mystery series starring Easy Rawlins (played by Denzel Washington in a film adaptation), the prolific Mosley has published around 30 crime novels alongside dozens of other works (science fiction, YA, non-fiction, plays, erotica, a graphic novel). In 2016 Mosley was named a Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America, and last year he became the first black man to receive the National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. Put simply, you need to read Walter Mosley. His standalone novel Down the River Unto the Sea, which went on to win the 2019 Edgar Award for Best Novel, is a lyrical and muscular work where disgraced NYPD cop turned Brooklyn private eye Joe King Oliver traverses Wall Street boardrooms to seedy backstreets as he looks to uncover who framed him years ago while also exonerating a black activist facing a death sentence.

So there you go, ten outstanding black crime writers who you may want to try this month, or any month. You can't really go wrong - and as I noted at the start, this is a mere sampling. We're blessed with an amazing, growing array of talented crime writers of colour who are enriching the genre we love with new stories and perspectives. I for one am grateful. 

Have you read any of these authors? Which may you want to try in future? What other black crime writers have you really loved? 

Thanks for reading. Until next time. Ka kite anō.

Whakataukī of the fortnight: 
Inspired by Zoe and her 'word of the week', I'll be ending my fortnightly posts by sharing a whakataukī (Māori proverb), a pithy and poetic thought to mull on as we go through life.

He waka eke noa

(A canoe which we are all in with no exception)


  1. Great post, Craig. There are also wonderful black writers setting their work in Africa. Maybe part of your 31 days!

    1. Absolutely Michael, I was considering the likes of Leye, Oyinkan, Kwei and others for a larger piece.

  2. You make life very complicated, Craig. Where do we mere mortals start? There is no humanly possible way to keep up with all the tantalizing new authors and reads you continue offering up to us. All I can say is, keep it up and may our own publishing deadlines be damned.