February is Black History Month and an appropriate time to call attention to some African-Americans who write mysteries as well as some who have been protagonists in the genre.
Most readers will be familiar with such stellar examples as Chester Himes and his characters Grave Digger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson, Walter Mosley and his Easy Rawlins series, or even Ishmael Reed and his Papa LaBas.
But how many can name the author of the first African-American mystery story?
I’ll confess, I didn’t know the answer either until I began my research for this blog. Pauline E. Hopkins holds that honor with her story Talma Gordon, published way back in 1900.
Hopkins, born in 1859 in ,
was a remarkable woman and deserves to be better known. Her mystery is a
classic locked-room tale, and you can read it here: http://www.hornpipe.com/mystclas/myscl19.pdf Portland, Maine
Himes began writing and publishing while serving a hard-labor prison sentence in the 1930s and his stories appeared in such esteemed national publications as Esquire. By the 1940s he was publishing novels and critics were comparing him to Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler.
Mosley, who earned a degree in political science and later worked as a computer programmer, didn’t begin writing until he was in his mid-30s but has since penned some 40 books. His work includes mysteries, science fiction and non-fiction and he says he prefers to be identified simply as a novelist.
Reed, whose work is concentrated on African and African-American perspectives, is a renaissance man, widely recognized as a poet, novelist, songwriter, playwright, editor and publisher.
There are many well-known African-American detectives in the literature aside from those already mentioned. James Patterson’s Alex Cross quickly comes to mind, as does George Pelecanos’ Derek Strange, among more recent creations. Then there’s Reg Hill’s Joe Sixsmith. And who could forget John Dudley Ball’s Virgil Tibbs?
My personal favorite, though, would have to be Benjamin January, a free colored surgeon and musician. January is the creation of Barbara Hambly and the stories are set mainly in the 1830s in
If you haven’t sampled any of the writers mentioned, do yourself a favor and seek out their work. It will open a whole new realm of enjoyment and education.