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Characters of Color
The first character of color created by a crime fiction writer appeared in Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “The Gold Bug” (1843). The narrator of the story attempts to discover the reason for the strange behavior of his friend, a reclusive Southern aristocrat. The black character, a servant named Jupiter, is too ignorant to tell his right hand from his left and a poor informant about what his master has been up to on the island. His distorted account provides what will later be known as a “red herring” in genre mystery fiction. In spite of his important role in the story, Jupiter as a character is a stereotypical ignorant slave, the slave as “Sambo,” who was common in Southern fiction during the antebellum era (Bailey, 1991).
In contrast, the slave character who appears in Hagar’s Daughter (1900), a serialized novel written by Pauline Elizabeth Hopkins, an African American magazine editor and writer, is capable enough to aid a white male secret agent in his investigation. Hopkins also wrote a short story, “Talma Gordon” (1900), inspired by the Lizzie Borden murder case. A respectable, upper middle-class spinster, Borden was tried and acquitted of the 1892 axe murders of her father and stepmother in Fall River, Massachusetts. In Hopkins’s short story, Talma Gordon is accused of her father’s murder. The story of her trial, acquittal, and the discovery of the identity of the true murderer is revealed by a white physician to a group of men gathered at their club. The story he recounts has a plot twist involving a mysterious stranger, but at the heart of the story is what Talma’s sister was told by their father when she demanded to know why he was changing his will to make his son with his second wife his heir. The father revealed that he had discovered before her death that their mother was an octoroon who had been adopted by her parents and had “black blood.” At the end of his story, the physician/narrator reveals that he is married to Talma Gordon.
Hopkins was followed as an African American crime writer by Rudolph Fisher, a physician, who wrote a classic detective novel set in Harlem, the legendary black community. In Fisher’s The Conjure-Man Dies (1935), New York Police Detective Perry Dart is joined by neighborhood physician, Dr. Archer, in investigating the murder of a European-educated African king who has set himself up as a conjure-man. In the tradition of classic crime fiction, the two sleuths search for a murderer among a closed circle of suspects, the people who were in the waiting room on the evening when the conjure man—or his servant—was murdered. Fisher’s cast of characters includes two comic characters who are hapless would-be “family detectives.” Avoiding stereotypes, Fisher has these two characters play a role in solving the murder mystery. Although he had written other short stories about black life in the city, Fisher, who died in his thirties, wrote only one other work featuring Dart and Archer. In “John Archer’s Nose” (1935), Fisher explores living conditions among Harlem’s working class (Bailey, 1991, 2008).
Although Fisher’s novel had received good reviews, his early death meant that his crime fiction was forgotten for decades. In the 1950s, Chester Himes, who was to become the best known African American crime writer until the 1990s, published the first of a series of novels he had been urged to write by a French publisher. At the time, Himes was an expatriate after having limited success with his writing career in the United States. His French publisher wanted him to write crime fiction about black Americans. Himes’s two African American detectives, “Grave Digger” Jones and “Coffin Ed” Johnson played minor roles in the first book, For Love of Imabelle [A Rage in Harlem] (1957). That book focused on an undertaker’s assistant who falls for a black femme fatale who is involved with a gang of criminals. In the books that follow, the two assumed their iconic roles as hardboiled police detectives navigating a black ghetto where, according to Himes, anything can happen. In the novels in the series, Himes combines realism with absurdism in depicting black life in a ghetto. The books follow the police detectives through the civil rights era. In Blind Man with a Pistol (1969), the detectives are unable to prevent the ghetto from exploding. Plan B, the last book featuring the two, finds them turning on each other (Bailey, 1991; see also Soitos, 1996 for his discussion of tropes in African American detective fiction).
During this era, from Pauline Elizabeth Hopkins at the turn of the century to Chester Himes in the 1950s and 1960s, few African American mystery writers were published. Of the African American characters who appeared in crime fiction, most were created by white writers. This also was true of the Hispanic, Asian, and Native American characters. Among Asian characters, two gained literary fame. Charlie Chan was the Chinese-American police detective created by Earl Derr Biggers. Biggers created Chan after reading about two detectives on the Honolulu police force (The Charlie Chan Family Home). Chan debuted in a minor role in The House Without a Key (1925). He returned in The Chinese Parrot (1926), traveling from his home base in Honolulu to California and posing as a cook to conduct a murder investigation. Biggers considered Chan a positive response to the negative “Yellow Peril” stereotypes of Asians and Asian Americans put forth by nativists. If Chan was benevolent and mild-mannered, Fu Manchu, the supervillain created by British author, Sax Rohmer, is brilliant, diabolical, and dangerous. Fu Manchu made his first appearance in The Mystery of Dr. Fu-Manchu [published in the United States as The Insidious Dr. Fu-Manchu] (1913). Fu-Manchu is the archenemy of police commissioner Denis Nayland Smith and his narrator/companion Dr. Petrie. In the early books, Smith is a colonial police commissioner, later a member of Scotland Yard, and then a British intelligence agent. In this sense, the Fu Manchu books may be seen as a forerunner of the James Bond series created by Ian Fleming in the 1950s.
Both Charlie Chan and Fu Manchu moved from print to radio, movies, television, and comic books. Today, the two characters are controversial and seen as illustrating the stereotypes about “Orientals” that were prevalent in the early 20th century. Although Chan is presented as a competent, honorable policeman and family man, he is also rendered harmless in the physical description of him as fat and almost dainty in his movements. Fu Manchu is depicted in robes with a distinctive mustache. He uses his education, obtained at Western universities, to further his evil schemes. In recent decades, one of the issues raised about the portrayal of the two characters has been about the casting of white actors to play Charlie Chan and Fu Manchu in the films adapted from the books (See Wu, 1982; Reddy, 2003, for contrasting discussion of the yellow peril trope in pulp and hardboiled fiction and in detective novels).
The Civil Rights movement in the 1960s, with nonviolent civil disobedience in the form of sit-ins and protests and the clashes and riots in urban communities, increased awareness of the concerns of racial and ethnic minorities. During this era, white writers began to create more racial and minority protagonists and supporting characters. These characters crossed physical, social, and psychological boundaries as they conducted their investigations. Police detective Virgil Tibbs debuted in John Ball’s In the Heat of the Night (1965). Tibbs is passing through a sleepy Southern town when he is arrested at the train station as a suspect in the murder of a Northern industrialist who has built a factory in town. When he is identified as a homicide detective from Pasadena, the man’s widow demands that Tibbs be allowed to work on the case. Tibbs bears some resemble to other brilliant racial minority detectives (including Biggers’s Charlie Chan and Arthur Upfield’s Australian half-caste aborigine detective Napoleon “Bonny” Bonaparte). In later books, Tibbs is shown as a respected crime solver in the environment of the Pasadena, California police department. In the Southern town that is the setting of the first novel, he must tread carefully. He proves himself with his knowledge of forensics and his ability to see beyond the assumptions that the police chief and his officers are making. New York City is the setting of Shaft (1970) by Ernest Tidyman. Shaft is a licensed private eye who functions much like his white counterparts. He is able to move between Harlem, the black ghetto, and the white world. In the first book in the series, he is hired by a black gangster to rescue his kidnapped daughter. This brings Shaft in conflict with the Italian mafia. Both Ball and Tidyman received Image Awards from the National Association for the Advancement for Colored People (NAACP).
Although they were still few in number, other racial/ethnic minority characters began to appear. Among these new characters were two fictional members of the Navajo Tribal Police, Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee. Created by Tony Hillerman, Lieutenant Leaphorn debuted in The Blessing Way (1970), with Sergeant Chee putting in his first appearance in People of Darkness (1980). Although Hillerman was not himself Native American, he earned critical praise for his depiction of the American Southwest and life on the reservation. In 1991, mystery writer, S.J. Rozan’s Chinese American private investigator, Lydia Chin, made her debut in a short story. Chin appeared for the first time in a novel in China Trade (1994). Chin works with an occasional partner/associate, a cynical, tough guy, white PI, Bill Smith. One of the earliest Mexican American sleuths was a gay public defender, Henry Rios, created by Michael Nava. The first book in the series featuring Rios, The Little Death, was published in 1986.
The late 1980s and the 1990s also saw an increase in the number of published African American crime writers. Walter Mosley, named a Grand Master by Mystery Writers of America in 2016, launched his crime writing career with Devil in a Blue Dress (1990). Set in post-World War II Los Angeles, the book introduces Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins, an African American military veteran. Fired from his factory job, he is in danger of losing the small house that he loves if he can’t find a way to pay his mortgage. Hired by a white man to find a woman, the fiancée of one of the candidates for mayor, Rawlins moves through 1940s Los Angeles, bringing a new racial perspective to the setting that Raymond Chandler had depicted from the perspective of his white private eye. The series is unique in that it took Rawlins—and Los Angeles—through the 1950s and into the turbulent 1960s. Other African American writers introduced protagonists who had not been seen before in crime fiction, such as Eleanor Taylor Bland’s protagonist, Marnie MacAlister, a widowed black female police detective. In the first book in the series, Dead Time (1992), MacAlister has moved with her children to the small town of Lincoln Prairie, Illinois. Teaming MacAlister with a male Polish American partner reflected Bland’s interest in depicting a multicultural cast of characters. She was also interested in portraying an African American extended family, which includes MacAlister’s two children, her mother, best friend, and eventually the firefighter whom she marries. Other writers during this era included Barbara Neely, author of a series featuring Blanche White, a Southern-born professional domestic; Gary Phillips and Gar Anthony Haywood, both of whom created African American PIs; and Valerie Wilson Wesley, who introduced a black female private eye and single mother in Newark, New Jersey.
Early female protagonists in crime fiction include both adult women and teenage girls. Even though they were more often victims or villains than heroic characters, women did begin to appear in non-traditional roles in 19th century fiction. Mrs. Gladden, in The Female Detective, created by Andrew Forrester in 1864, worked as an undercover agent in the London Metropolitan Police long before real-life women were formally recruited. Her debut was followed by that of Mrs. Paschal, a widow who works with the police and as a private investigator. Mrs. Paschal’s exploits were published in 1864, in ten short stories as The Revelations of a Lady Detective, by William Stephen Hayward. Other early female sleuths include Loveday Brooke, who worked for a London detective agency and appeared in seven short stories by C. L. (Catherine Louisa) Pirkis. The short stories were collected as The Experiences of Loveday Brooke, Lady Detective, 1894.
Although Agatha Christie, “the grand dame of detective fiction,” wrote more books featuring her iconic detective Hercule Poirot, her female sleuth, Miss Jane Marple has had an enduring impact on crime fiction. Shrewd, curious, and observant, Miss Marple knows the residents of her English village, St. Mary Mead, and approaches crime-solving with empathy for their human foibles. Miss Marple made her first appearance in a short story, “The Tuesday Night Club” (1927), and later in The Murder at the Vicarage (1930). She is a forerunner of modern female amateur sleuths such as Jessica Fletcher of Cabot Cove, Maine, a widowed high school teacher turned mystery writer, in the television show Murder, She Wrote (1984–1996) and tie-in novels. Christie’s other female protagonist Prudence “Tuppence” Beresford is one half of a sleuthing couple with her husband, Thomas. Tuppence and Tommy make their debut in The Secret Adversary (1922) as a bright, young couple. Christie’s contemporary, Dorothy Sayers provided her aristocratic male detective Lord Peter Wimsey with a female mystery writer as his love interest. Wimsey first encounters Harriet Vane in Strong Poison (1930) when she is accused of killing her former lover. In later books in which she appears, she sleuths with Wimsey and eventually accepts his marriage proposal. Critics have noted the role Vane plays in Wimsey’s maturation into a more serious character.
In the United States, Mary Roberts Rinehart wrote a series of novels featuring female protagonists in what would later be described as the “Had-I-But-Known” school of mystery writing. Rinehart’s first novel, The Man in Lower Ten, was published in 1906. Rinehart would go on writing for decades, the exploits of her adult female detectives overlapping with those of the “girl detectives” who appeared in the pre-World War II era. The most influential and enduring of these teenage sleuths has been Nancy Drew. Drew was the brainchild of publisher Edward Stratemeyer, who was already publishing the Hardy Boys series, featuring male teenage sleuths when Nancy Drew debuted in 1930. The books have been ghostwritten by various authors under the pseudonym “Carolyn Keene.” Although the books have been updated and revised extensively (e.g., to remove racist stereotype), the premise of the series remains the same. Nancy is the daughter of a widowed attorney. She is a high school graduate who runs her father’s household, has an array of skills and talents, dresses well, has her own car, travels, and solves mysteries assisted by her two best female friends and her boyfriend Ned, a college student (see Cornelius & Gregg, 2008). Many women who came of age during the feminist movement of the 1960s report that Nancy Drew, who was smart, competent, and independent, was an influence on their own perception of what girls could be and do.
With the equal rights movement in the 1960s, women in real life challenged their exclusion from some jobs. The enactment of federal legislation (Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964: Equal Employment Opportunity) opened the door to employment in public service occupations, including law enforcement, by forbidding exclusion based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. The requirement that hiring be based on job-required criteria made it possible for women to qualify as patrol officers rather than the positions they had held as police matrons or working with women and children. This change was reflected in crime fiction, but the majority of the fictional female protagonists were detectives rather than patrol officers. Because the crimes investigated in crime fiction are usually felonies, particularly murder, the protagonists in police procedurals have tended to be detectives. Often private eyes in crime fiction have spent some time as police officers before becoming PIs.
In the early 1970s, British writer P. D. James created Cordelia Gray, a young female PI who had inherited an unsuccessful private investigatory agency from her dead partner. Gray appears in two novels, debuting in An Unsuitable Job for a Woman (1972). In the United States, three writers created female detectives who broke new ground as women in what had been considered a male profession. In 1977, Marcia Muller’s Sharon McCone appeared in Edwin of the Iron Shoes, the first novel in a long-lived series. McCone was followed in the 1980s by Sara Paretsky’s Chicago PI, V. I. Warshawski, in Indemnity Only (1982), and Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone in “A” is for Alibi (1982). In the 1990s and after, more female protagonists appeared in a variety of professional positions, including medical examiners, forensics experts, lawyers, and investigative reporters. However, the list of 21st century female protagonists also includes caterers, librarians, pet sitters, house cleaners, and an array of other occupations or avocations.