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African American Mystery Writers and Their African American Detectives

Janice Batzdorff, Librarian,
Devil in a Blue Dress movie poster (1995)
Devil in a Blue Dress movie poster (1995)

They work in Watts, Chicago, Oakland, and Harlem, go on vacation in Provincetown, MA, and return home to Otis, South Carolina (pop. 5,000). They include an Ivy League professor, an ex-CIA agent, a volatile ex-cop, a journalist, a domestic worker, an attorney, a Ph.D. student whose best informers work in a beauty salon, and a saxophone-playing street musician.

Among them are single parents, foster parents, an orphan, and lesbians. They have starred in movies. They work in the past and the present. They are biracial. They partner with white colleagues.

They are African American detectives created by African American mystery writers whose lives are as varied as their fictional characters.

Walter Mosley

Walter Mosley, today’s most prolific and successful African American mystery writer, is the 2016 recipient of the Mystery Writers of America’s Grand Master Award, which represents the pinnacle of achievement in mystery writing. Mosley has thus far written fourteen mysteries about the iconic African American detective, Easy Rawlins. The character is inspired by Mosley’s father’s experiences as a World War II veteran who moved from the south to Los Angeles in the 1940s.

In 1948, Rawlins debuts in Devil in a Blue Dress, in which he accepts a $100 offer to locate a missing white woman who keeps the company of black jazz musicians in South Central Los Angeles. Untrained and unlicensed, his success stems from his knowledge of the community. Denzel Washington starred in the Devil in a Blue Dress movie based on Mosley’s book.

Chester B. Himes

Chester B. Himes (1909-1984), author of the best-selling novel If He Hollers Let Him Go, was the twentieth century’s most prolific black writer. He is best known for his hard-boiled detective stories including Cotton Comes to Harlem, featuring black New York City police detectives Grave Digger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson.

A film was made of Cotton Comes to Harlem. Himes began writing while incarcerated for seven years in the Ohio State Penitentiary starting at the age of 19. He lived abroad first in Paris and then in Moraira, Spain. Chester B. Himes: a Biography by Lawrence P. Jackson was just published in 2017.

Eleanor Taylor Bland

Eleanor Taylor Bland (1944-2010) created the first female African American homicide detective to star in a series. Marti MacAlister is a former Chicago cop who has moved to the suburb of Lincoln Prairie, Illinois, following the apparent suicide of her policeman husband. MacAlister uses urban smarts to solve suburban crimes. Bland wrote several of her novels while working as a cost accountant at Abbott Laboratories.

Paula L. Woods
Paula L. Woods thought a voice was missing from the collection she edited: Spooks, Spies, and Private Eyes: Black Mystery, Crime, and Suspense Fiction. There was no female cop that was “tough as nails but feminine enough to get her nails done.” To remedy the situation, she wrote the Charlotte Justice mysteries featuring African-American LAPD detective Charlotte Justice.

Barbara Neely

Barbara Neely also corrected the absence of female African American writers in the detective genre. She created a dark-skinned African American sleuth named Blanche White, which ironically means “White White”. Blanche is a middle-aged maid who works in North Carolina for a white woman who always takes her handbag with her when she leaves the room that is being cleaned. Blanche juggles her job, her child-rearing duties, and her penchant for solving crimes.

Grace F. Edwards

Grace F. Edwards was born and raised in Harlem and now lives in Brooklyn. Her mysteries feature sometime-sleuth Mali Anderson, a savvy, street-smart student working towards a Ph.D. in social work. Mali lives with her jazz musician father and her 11-year-old orphaned nephew; Mali’s sister was murdered. A slew of Harlem beauticians who work at Bertha’s Beauty salon are Mali’s best informers.

Evelyn Coleman

Evelyn Coleman, an award-winning author of American Girl History Mysteries, has also written What a Woman's Gotta Do. This thriller features Patricia Conley, an African American orphan who became a journalist in Atlanta, GA. Conley could save the world from a major catastrophe. Coleman also introduces information about the African Dogon, an ancient tribe living in Mali, West Africa.

Glenville Lovell

Glenville Lovell was born in a chattel house on the island of Barbados. He then travelled as a dancer before becoming a writer. He now lives in New York and has created a reluctant hero, Blades Overstreet, a volatile black ex-cop in Brooklyn, New York. Lovell also sets other books in his native Barbados.

Gar Anthony Haywood

Los Angeles native Gar Anthony Haywood has written ten crime novels, six featuring African American private investigator Aaron Gunner. Formerly a less than successful private eye, Gunner has become an apprentice electrician in a construction company. When two innocent black men are brutally murdered by a white psychotic, the sister of one of the victims seductively persuades Gunner to return to his former profession.

Rachel Howzell Hall
Another Los Angeles native, Rachel Howzell Hall, brings us the Elouise Norton Detective series featuring the Los Angeles homicide detective and her partner, Colin Taggert, who tend to see things differently. Hall has also recently collaborated with James Patterson on The Good Sister in The Family Lawyer compilation.

Frankie Y. Bailey

Frankie Y. Bailey, Ph.D. is a professor in the School of Criminal Justice, University at Albany (SUNY). Her amateur sleuth, Lizzie Stuart, who appears in You Should Have Died on Monday, is also an African American university professor and crime historian. Bailey is the author of African American Mystery Writers: a historical and thematic study.

Penny Mickelbury

Penny Mickelbury, a former reporter for the Washington Post and a political reporter for the ABC-TV affiliate in Washington, D.C., left journalism to became a novelist. She created two African American mystery heroines: Carole Ann Gibson, a wealthy lawyer and part-time sleuth, and Gianna Maglione, a lesbian Police Lieutenant who heads the Hate Crimes Unit in Washington, D.C.

Book cover for Long Goodbyes

A native of Greene County, OH, Nikki Baker (pseudonym of Jennifer Dowdell) received degrees from Purdue University and the University of Chicago. Her Virginia Kelly mysteries (In the Game, The Lavender House Murder, and Long Goodbyes) feature a Chicago businesswoman who is a black lesbian. Both in her Midwestern hometown and while on vacation in Provincetown, MA, Kelly turns to crime solving while dealing with alienation from the community.

Christopher Darden

Attorney Christopher Darden, a prosecutor in the O.J. Simpson murder trial, left the Los Angeles District Attorney’s office after the verdict and became a law professor. He also began writing mysteries in collaboration with Dick Lochte. Their main characters are ambitious African American attorney, Nikki Hill, and Mercer Early, a lawyer at the most prestigious African-American law firm on the West Coast.

Karen Grigsby Bates

Karen Grigsby Bates is a Los Angeles correspondent for National Public Radio News. From her firsthand knowledge of the journalism field she has created Journalist/sleuth Alex Powell, who investigates murders in Los Angeles.

Terris McMahan Grimes

Terris McMahan Grimes grew up in West Oakland and has written from her home in Sacramento the award-winning Theresa Galloway mystery series. Her amateur sleuth is a personnel officer for a state agency in Sacramento who agrees when her mother insists that she has a better chance of solving a crime than the police do.

Kyra Davis

Kyra Davis’s mother is Jewish and her father is African American. Her literary heroine, Sophie Katz, is also biracial with African American and Jewish heritage. And Katz is a mystery writer who, like Davis, lives in San Francisco.

Judith Smith-Levin

Judith Smith-Levin was the first uniformed female police officer in Worcester, MA. Her protagonist is African American homicide detective Lt. Starletta Duvall, a gutsy 15-year police-force veteran and the daughter of a cop as well. Duvall solves crimes in Massachusetts.

Charlotte Carter

Charlotte Carter’s Nanette Hayes Mysteries features a saxophone-playing street musician and crime solver. Though from a middle-class black family, Hayes’ salty language, bohemian ways, and irreverent humor often land her in the middle of a murder case. She travels from New York to Paris and back in Rhode Island Red, Coq au Vin, and in Drumsticks.

Teddy Hayes

Teddy Hayes is a native of Cleveland, Ohio but lives in the UK. An Emmy award-winning television writer and filmmaker, as a novelist, he created the Devil Barnett Series about an ex-CIA agent turned PI. Barnett works as a barkeep in Harlem.

Valerie Wilson Wesley

Valerie Wilson Wesley has created Tamara Hayle, Newark, New Jersey's number one private investigator. Hayle is a sexy African-American single mom, ex-cop, who is known for her wisecracks.

Attica Locke

Attica Locke began her writing career as a screenwriter in Los Angeles. She has now written award winning books that are set in her native Texas. Her characters include Jay Porter, a black lawyer in Houston with a past as a civil rights worker, Darren Mathews, a black Texas Ranger investigating a murder in a small east Texas town, and Caren, a young African American woman who manages an estate that used to be a plantation.

Pamela Thomas-Graham

Last by certainly not least, is Harvard educated entrepreneur, Pamela Thomas-Graham, the first black woman partner at a New York consulting firm. She has developed the Ivy League Mystery series featuring Nikki Chase, a black economics professor at Harvard who solves murders not just at her university, but while visiting Yale and Princeton as well.