Uncovering the truth about black detectives in pulp fiction

By Jane Sullivan
The Age
February 19th, 2020

In 1971, private detective John Shaft was the ultimate in cool black heroes. Played by Richard Roundtree on the big screen, Shaft blasted the baddies to a funky Isaac Hayes score and launched a host of blaxploitation movies that used the political unrest of the day as background to thrills, chills and big Afros.

Richard Roundtree as John Shaft in the 1971 film.
Richard Roundtree as John Shaft in the 1971 film.Credit:

I always assumed the novel Shaft, on which the film was based, must have been written by a soul brother. But the author was Ernest Tidyman, a white journalist and screenwriter seeking an income from pulp fiction. The story goes he made up the name of his detective hero in the publisher’s office when he looked out the window and saw a ‘‘Fire Shaft Way’’ sign.

Six books followed, including Shaft among the Jews, Shaft’s Big Score, Shaft Has a Ball and finally The Last Shaft, where Tidyman killed off his hero. But Shaft wasn’t the first fictional African American detective. That honour probably goes to the hero of the 1932 novel The Conjure Man Dies, by Rudolph Fisher.

I found this out in Sticking It To The Man: Revolution and Counterculture in Pulp and Popular Fiction, 1950 to 1980, a new anthology edited by Andrew Nette and Iain McIntyre. Although it’s an academic book it’s accessible and entertaining, with essays, interviews and splendid illustrations of lurid and sensational covers.

The book covers pulp fiction released in the US, Britain, Canada and Australia and the subject matter ranges from campus rebellion, hippies and yippies to Vietnam warriors and vigilantes, and pioneering gay pulp and lesbi-pulp. As you can tell from the feminist essay title, Lithe, Lusty and Liberated, these books sometimes did their heroes and heroines no favours. But as the editors point out, even the truly terrible books are important for what they reveal about the times.

Some of the most interesting chapters are about the black detectives, and unlike Shaft, they were often invented by black authors. Chester Himes started writing serious social realist novels in jail, serving a sentence for armed robbery. Somewhat reluctantly, he switched to pulp, and in 1957 created the Harlem detectives Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones, heroes of a series of novels who as their names suggest were a pretty ornery duo given to torture and killing in the line of duty (their victims were always black).

Another black author who began writing in jail was Iceberg Slim, who in 1967 produced a somewhat unreliable memoir, Pimp: The Story of My Life. His bestselling books struck a nerve with black readers who could relate to his inner-city stories of hustlers playing the system and winning.

‘‘He’s a bad, bold soul brother up to his sweet hips in revolution – and women!’’ is how the cover of 1970 novel Black is Beautiful introduced its hero Richard Spade, nicknamed Superspade. Some plastic surgery after a footballing accident has rendered Superspade not only better-looking but also irresistible to women, thanks to a special aphrodisiac musk coming out of his sweat glands. The bold, black author of the Spade novel series, Joseph Perkins Greene, was a songwriter who took on a publisher’s assignment with gusto. ‘‘Negroes need to have their own heroes,’’ he said.

Sticking It to the Man: Revolution and Counterculture in Pulp and Popular Fiction, 1950 to 1980

And let’s not forget the Australian version of this phenomenon, the 29 Bony novels of Arthur Upfield, published between 1929 and 1966. Though Upfield has been criticised in recent years for his postcolonial representations of Aboriginal characters, the ‘‘half-caste’’ Napoleon Bonaparte, the man between two tribes with a special knowledge of the outback, was once our best-loved fictional detective.