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Civil Rights Era Mystery Novels

September 29, 2008


The latest issue of Mystery Scene has just arrived and features, as always, a wealth of information about the mystery genre — from an article on new legal thrillers to another on mysteries set in Maryland to another on fall TV programs (including a quick preview of True Blood, the vampire series based on Charlaine Harris’ books). This issue also features an interview with hot new novelist Tana French (whose books I was lucky enough to review in the Washington Post and Metro Magazine) and a talk on writing with Richard Stark (aka Donald Westlake) as several of his early novels are being republished.

I’m pleased to be included in this issue myself, with the article “Murder in Black & White: Novels of the Civil Rights Era.” This article — first presented in a slightly different form as a scholarly paper at the last meeting of the Society for the Study of Southern Literature — seeks to examine how genre writers explore pressing contemporary social issues. Raymond Chandler long ago argued for the genre’s ability to engage and explore real world problems, and we often see “ripped from the headlines” plots on television today (Law & Order is particularly adept at these), but I was curious how well novelists from the Civil Rights Era — those writing both about the era and from within the era — were able to navigate the rapidly changing politics and social mores. Joe L. Hensley’s The Color of Hate, for example, boasted a cover that seemed to play up some tawdry and prurient elements of its story, but was the novel itself a case of exploration or exploitation?  Both Ed Lacy’s Room to Swing and John Ball’s In the Heat of the Night won Edgar Awards (in 1957 and 1965, respectively), but how well did each book capture the times in a way that might be useful to today’s readers? In short, was that “ripped from the headlines” quality an asset to the pertinence and staying power of such books or just a selling point that ultimately sold readers — readers both then and now — short?

To some degree, my interest in these questions was prompted by the recent republication of Shepard Rifkin’s 1970 novel The Murderer Vine by Hard Case Crime — the first time in over 35 years that the book has been in print. As is their tradition, Hard Case Crime also chose to give the reissue a provocative and even slightly titillating cover, but the true event from which the story grew was nothing but serious — in fact, it was one of the pivotal moments in the evolution of the Civil Rights Era: the killing of three civil rights workers — James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner — in Mississippi during the Freedom Summer voter registration drive. My interest in that mixing of real-world, high-stakes events with the elements of genre fiction was deepened when I taught Chester Himes’ Cotton Comes to Harlem in one of my classes at Mason last semester. And the essay grew from there.

No need to detail too much of the argument here, since the magazine itself is available now. But did want to call attention to it for readers either interested in this chapter in American history or intrigued by the question of whether genre fiction can hold its own with more literary titles when it come to trenchant analyses of the world around us.

— Art Taylor

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One comment

  1. […] you want, punk” is the new “information wants to be free”—but he sets up the issue nicely on his blog: To some degree, my interest in these questions was prompted by the recent […]



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