The Underbelly Is a Great Mystery Read for Black History Month

By Molly Odintz
Mystery People Blog
February 11th, 2016

February is Black History Month, not Black Mystery Month. However, fiction – especially pulp fiction, with its emphasis on raw emotion and experience – can be the best way to approach the sensations, as well as the actual facts, of history. Mysteries today tend to be seen as a mainly white genre, and there’s plenty of statistics, as well as the We Need Diverse Books movement, pointing out that authors of color tend to garner fewer reviews and less promotion than white authors. However, the history of mystery is as diverse as its present.

I’ve been working to learn more about the history of African-American mystery writers myself, and in the process, I wanted to bring some thoughts and recommendations to this blog.  Here are a few recommended mystery reads for the month of February, including classics, historical mysteries, and stories with contemporary settings, yet strong connections to the past.

I should add that I am not an expert on this subject, but instead an enthusiastic amateur, hoping to expand my own knowledge of the history of mystery in researching this topic. The recommendations below have been assembled somewhat haphazardly, and I have leaned heavily on Wikipedia’s well-curated article on street lit for all my recommendations from this sub-genre.

I additionally drew from the excellent blog Myst Noir: African American Mysteries, and additional recommendations can be found in this excellent resource guide to mysteries and thrillers by African American writers from Stoneham Library. Books from other sub-genres recommended below are assembled based on what I have noticed in the mystery section, and are not intended to be viewed as a complete selection of mystery novels by African-American authors.

Some of the books listed below would be considered classics of street literature, or urban fiction, a genre defined by gritty tales of struggle and survival in economically deprived and racially segregated American inner cities. A resource guide to urban fiction on the website defines the genre as such: “Urban fiction, also known as street lit is a literary genre set, as the name implies, in a city landscape; however, the genre is as much defined by the socio-economic realities and culture of its characters as the urban setting. The tone for urban fiction is usually dark, focusing on the underside of city living. Profanity, sex, and violence are usually explicit, with the writer not shying away from or watering-down the material.”

Urban fiction was first popularized by Iceberg Slim with his autobiography, which despite being ignored by the publishing industry, found a distributor in Holloway House and became a widespread bestseller. Slim’s success contributed to the rise of the Blacksploitation cinema movement of the 1970s, and along with Holloway House, established a subgenre that endures to this day. The story of Iceberg Slim, Holloway House, and the genre of urban fiction can be explored further either through Street Poisona new biography of Iceberg Slim, or through the many reviews the new biography has garnered, such as in this excellent New Yorker piece. 

Modern African-American crime fiction divides its focus between an urban literature new wave – defined by such voices as Sister Souljah – and a mixture of African-American experiences with diverse subgenres, including the political thriller, the roman noir, and the hard-boiled detective novel. For an excellent selection of recent street lit recommendations, try Vanessa Irvin’s Street Literature blog or try Urban Reviews Online. 

For those who look to the classic hard-boiled narrative, I recommend Chester Himes, known for his hard-boiled Harlem cop novels of the fifties, and Iceberg Slim, whose autobiography Pimp: The Story of My Life and subsequent works of fiction (many of which then graced the silver screen) transformed both the literature of the streets and the idioms of many Americans.

For those looking for that perfect historical PI series, try Walter Mosley, who writes in diverse genres, yet is best known for his hard-boiled historical PI series with protagonist Easy Rawlins. Mosley has just been named the 2016 Grand Master of the Mystery Writers of America. His Easy Rawlins series uses the detective genre impeccably to trace the African-American experience from the late 40s through the next several decades, and the famously prolific Mosley will keep you happily reading for some time. The series begins with Devil in a Blue Dress, set in the 40s, and mixing the hard-boiled detective novel with the passing narrative, and continues through to his most recent installment, Rose GoldMosley’s take on the Patty Hearst and the Symbionese Liberation Army, set in the late 60s.

For those looking for a good crusade-against-corruption series, try Attica Locke’s brilliant Houston-set political thrillers Black Water Rising and Pleasantville. These two novels follow Houston lawyer Jay Porter over the decades as he fights to get a good settlement from the chemical companies illegally dumping waste in African-American communities. Locke has equal amounts of political and corporate machinations contained in her works, and the environmental concerns mixed with political scandal are an electrifying combination. Attica Locke is now off in Hollywood writing for the hit TV series Empire, busy updating King Lear for the 2st century music industry, and I can’t wait to follow what she does on the show and read her next novel!

Speaking of power politics and the music industry, try Nelson George’s industry-set mysteries. Nelson George is an incredibly prolific author and public intellectual, and I’m so glad he chose to explore the world of genre fiction in addition to everything else he does.  For those looking toward more historical musical settings, try Persia Walker’s 1920s-Harlem-setBlack Orchid Blues, her third novel in her Harlem Renaissance series. Moody, vibrant, and edgy, Persia Walker’s work has it all.

Last but not least, the detective novel has frequently gone hand in hand with the socially aware critique. For those who like to mix their genre fiction with their politics, try Stand Your Ground, Victoria Christopher Murray’s soulful and devastating tale of a woman who loses her son to a vigilante, or The Underbelly, by Gary Phillips, which follows a homeless vet as he struggles to piece together his friend’s disappearance. Philips worked as a community activist for many years, and his politics come through in all of his writing, including his excellent story collection, MonkologyHand in hand with political fiction comes satire, so one more to recommend: try Dwayne Alexander Smith’s excellent thrillerForty Acres for satire so sharp, you might end up with papercuts.

Back to Gary Phillips’s Author Page