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“Polar noir”: Reading African-American Detective Fiction

Alice Mills
Claude Julien

I. Variations on a genre

African-American Detective Fiction: Surveying the Genre

Stephen Soitos


This essay aims to outline the evolution of Afro-American detective fiction by looking at a few pivotal moments. The founders of the genre who wrote immediately introduced “detectives” that were close to Afro-American, even African grass roots... Although he did not bring Harlem into black detective fiction (Fisher did that), Himes can be considered as the founder of the modern black genre. Many in this prolific field have followed his lead that interestingly came into being at the request of Marcel Duhamel, the director of the Gallimard “Série Noire”.

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1African American writers have written detective fiction since the very beginning of the 20th century. Right from the first serialized detective novels published in African American periodical literature black writers adapted the accepted conventions of detective fiction to their own ends. Writing for black readers, and eager to affirm the blacks’ place in the world, it was only natural for them to transfer their stories into a black context. This meant introducing black speech, black attitudes and beliefs, generally speaking, black culture. Black rank and file characters were not enough. The detective must also be black, which meant the introduction of double conscious detection, through a persona that was able to build bridges between the two worlds. Overall, the Euro-American popular literary form was used to examine issues of race, class and gender through an African American perspective. Authors such as Pauline E. Hopkins, John Edward Bruce, Rudolph Fisher, Chester Hirnes, Ishmael Reed, and Clarence Major were the first African American writers to write detective novels with black detectives — members of the force, or citizens taking it upon themselves to solve a case. These authors established a tradition of black detective writing that has laid the groundwork for many new African American detective and mystery story writers working in the second half of the 20th century and into the present day.

2Detective fiction is a relatively recent literary creation. Edgar Allan Poe is credited with introducing the idea of the detective hero when he wrote such stories as Murders on the Rue Morgue (1841) and The Purloined Letter (1845). Poe’s brilliant amateur detective Dupin was the first model for what has proven to be an extremely popular genre type. Poe also established many of the conventions of the detective novel, including a story narrated by a close associate of the detective, a bumbling police force, the eccentric detective, the locked room mystery, and the idea of clues leading to the exposing of the murderer. However, even though the detective formula was invented in the 1840s there were few literary detectives until the rise of pipe-smoking (but not necessarily tobacco-smoking) Sherlock Holmes of Baker Street, flanked by his unauthorized chronicler, the good-but-not-so-bright Dr. Watson, late in the 19th century. In America in the 1920s Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler created a new variation of the detective featuring a hardboiled hero who narrates his own story in the first person.

  • 1 Scott was Booker T. Washington’s secretary. Incensed by Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation”, he beca (...)

3Evidence from black periodical literature indicates that African Americans were quick to pick up on the popular art form. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries African Americans were generally not published by white-owned and white-edited magazines and newspapers. Black creativity needed an outlet. Agency was the way to visibility and self-respect. As Emmett J. Scott, the Johnson brothers and Oscar Micheaux later did in the film industry,1 journalists and writers took things in their own hands and formed their own alternative black-owned publications.. A few, like The Colored American Magazine (1900-1909, first published in Boston then in New York, with a readership as high as 15,000) or McGirt’s Magazine (1903-1909) based in Philadelphia reached a wider audience. But, from the beginning these periodicals were dubbed “little” because of their small circulation, usually under 1,000 subscribers. Many were local, resulting from the initiatives of churches, for instance. Some were short-lived ventures resting on the energies of a single individual or a tiny group. But all, large or small, were popular culture media for poetry, fiction and essays written by African American writers for black audiences. It is in these periodicals that the first detective and mystery stories written by African Americans made their appearance. Much of the early ephemeral African American periodical literature is lost or lying forgotten in libraries. Therefore, there may exist even earlier examples of black detective fiction to rediscover.

  • 2 Only 64 pages of it remain in the Schomburg Center, under the form of a microfilm. This novel had f (...)

4The two known earliest black detective novels are Pauline Hopkins’s Hagar’s Daughter (1901-02) published serially in The Colored American Magazine and John Bruce’s The Black Sleuth (1908-09)2 published in McGirt’s Magazine. Both these novels contain black detectives who, this is remarkable, break the pattern of the isolated eccentric detective Poe and Doyle had established. In these two early black novels the detectives work together in a team to solve crimes, and their families are important aspects of their identities. In Hagar’s Daughter, a servant girl named Venus Johnson works in consort with another black detective to help solve the mystery of Hagar’s missing daughter. The Black Sleuth’s detective is an African who comes to the United States and joins a multi-racial international detective agency. These two novels also establish the black distinctive detective tradition in other important ways through the inclusion of black vernacular, the music of black speech (not just the words and syntax of it), as well as double conscious detectives whose black identity (sometimes even their knowledge of Hoodoo folk religion) is essential to the solving of the murders. Although the novels may contain sensational otherworldly elements, they are written primarily as social critiques of the color line in pre-and post-Civil War Southern society.

  • 3 This caused her to lose her editorial position when, in 1904, an editor sympathetic to Booker T. Wa (...)

5Pauline Hopkins was an editor of The Colored American. She was a prolific author, writing both fiction and prose, and a social activist.3 In Hagar’s Daughter, Hopkins’s primary metaphor for the evil of slave society and racial prejudice is passing and the resultant tragedies brought about by trying to hide one’s black blood. Hopkins’s bold stroke in making a black female maid a detective, the person in command, points the way to further adaptation of the detective persona by black writers. As a primary work in the detective tradition, Hagar’s Daughter reverses pervasive stereotypes while creating new avenues of expression for black Americans.

  • 4 His career as a journalist began in 1874 as a Washington correspondent for The New York Times. His (...)
  • 5 He was among Marcus Garvey’s most important contacts when the Jamaican first came to the US in 1916 (...)

6John Bruce was born a slave in Maryland in 1856. He became a very influential journalist, an author and political activist who wrote and published primarily4 for a black press and readership. Bruce was involved in political life and worked with black nationalistic organizations5 that counseled black people to pursue the rights they were denied through agitation and civil disobedience. The Black Sleuth contains extremely outspoken attacks on white racial prejudice. It stresses the importance of black pride and centers its black detective firmly in an African tradition of kinship. Sadipe, the African who travels to the southern United States experiences bigotry first hand. He joins an international detective agency (in which Black detectives work in groups showing the strength of solidarity and community) to help find a stolen African diamond. Bruce follows a firm but unobtrusive militant agenda. His racial pride and interest in black history are incorporated into a novel that cleverly alters the conventional detective plots of the time by using an international setting and uncompromising perspectives on white supremacy and imperialism.

7These early novels also make affirmative African American cultural statements by stressing the positive aspects of African American creations such as music, specific foods, and community religious practices that often refer back to an African tradition. Both Venus and Sadipe use their blackness and their menial positions as maid and waiter to help solve crimes. In this, black detective fiction characters are very different from the mixed-blood and middle class heroes of black novels published in book form at the turn of the 20th century. Black periodicals offered their authors more freedom to be racially creative — which, of course, is not to say that novelists like Dunbar or Chesnutt were satisfied with white supremacy and the denial of dignity and civil rights.

8As both Hopkins and Bruce were only recently rediscovered as detective fiction writers, one cannot say that later African American detective fiction took its cue from the founders of the genre. One must, however, observe that steeping fiction in — sometimes lowly — black life and surroundings is a permanent trait of the genre. In 1932, Rudolph Fisher, a member of the Harlem Renaissance, published The Conjure Man Dies, long considered to have been the first-ever black detective novel. In this novel Perry Dart, the only black detective on the New York police force, works with a black doctor named Archer to solve the case of the murdered conjure man, Frimbo. All of the action of the novel takes place in Harlem and all of the characters are black. Frimbo is a black African with a degree from Harvard University as well as a spiritual connection to African religious practices. The Conjure Man Dies combines elements of the classical locked room mystery with Harlem Renaissance themes. In many ways, although he was not born in the U. S., Frimbo embodies the “New Negro”: a black man proud of his African heritage as well as his African American cultural achievements.

  • 6 See the title of the second volume of Himes’s autobiography, My Life of Absurdity.

9Chester Himes followed, once again using the detective novel format to criticize racist practices as well as examine class issues and violence in Harlem. Himes was the first to introduce the hardboiled tradition in black detective fiction, while giving it a distinctive hue. Writing about Harlem from Europe, and from the sense of the absurd6 that affirmed itself as his trademark after The Primitive (1955), the sardonic side of hardboiled fiction could only appeal to him as a means to speak on violence. For Love of Imabelle was first published in France where the outrageously absurd Harlem landscape immediately drew laughter. In some ways, the same as South Central Los Angeles in the fictions by Gar Haywood or Walter Mosley, the ghetto itself becomes as important as plot and character. Through his descriptions of Harlem streets, his emphasis on the black community and its vibrant use of language and music, Himes created a rich cityscape that illustrates the complexities of African American culture. The novels also follow a progression from first to last as the plots become more involved and the two detectives become less effective in an increasingly chaotic world.

10One of the primary assumptions of detective fiction is that the detective will solve the crime. But in Blind Man with a Pistol (1969, the last in the series, with the exception of the posthumously published Plan B), crimes multiply into mayhem as a back-to-Africa group, a black-Jesus movement and a black brotherhood organization battle each other in the Harlem streets. In the end no crime is solved. Coffin Ed and Grave Digger are defeated by the web of corruption that influenced their white superiors to withhold evidence. The detectives are left shooting rats in an derelict building. In Plan Β (1993), an armed black revolution breaks out and Grave Digger kills Coffin Ed before being killed himself. Up until this point, African American detective novels had remained faithful to the detective convention of the restoration of moral order. On the contrary, Himes’s apocalyptic vision saw Harlem and African American life in general as rooted in a racism that eventually destroys both blacks and whites.

11Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo (1972) and Clarence Major’s Reflex and Bone Structure (1975) both continued the experimentation with the detective form initiated by Himes. Both writers chose a post-modern anti-detective form which satirizes detective conventions. These books challenge accepted viewpoints on history and the nature of knowledge and how it is received. They also attack rigid definitions of African American art, character and culture.

12Mumbo Jumbo introduces the detective Papa LaBas who challenges both classical and hardboiled detective personas. As a Hoodoo detective he represents Reed’s Neo-Hoodoo aesthetic. Neo-Hoodoo is a positive African American worldview supported by African American creations in the areas of vernaculars, double consciousness detection and religion. Mumbo Jumbo mixes time frames and references to other popular culture forms into a hybrid detective novel that revises history with an Afrocentric emphasis. Reed uses the detective novel format to satirize white mainstream racist practices as well as critique class divisions within the black world.

13Clarence Major’s Reflex and Bone Structure is a metaphysical detective novel in which the formulas of detective fiction are totally subverted. This novel extends the black detective tradition into experimental narrative territory. It signifies on appropriated Euro-American cultural literary conventions, such as character, plot, and description and parodies the detective form. It stretches the boundaries of detective fiction form by questioning how mysteries are written. The unreliable narrator in the novel is in this sense a trickster figure that displays his talent by manipulating the reader’s perceptions. With repeated references to a detective and a possible murder the novel has the eerie suspense associated with detective fiction but provides none of the typical resolutions of the form. Major’s reduction of detective fiction to the basics of understanding suggests that a new approach to perception and the nature of learning is necessary. This is particularly important to the perception of black identity in America.

  • 7 All authors could not be mentioned here. Three internet sites prove useful (in spite of their many (...)

14Himes, Reed and Major have brought detective fiction into particularly creative grounds. Their shining names should not obscure from view the many authors who, in the second half of the 20th century, have used this popular genre in their own ways to introduce their views on US society from coast to coast, be it be urban or rural. Among others, BarbaraNeely who uses a maid’s vantage point to look at the world of her (white) employers; Valerie Wilson Wesley whose P. I. Tamara Hayle only once leaves the Newark area... to go to Jamaica in Where Evil Sleeps (1996); Eleanor Taylor Bland’s Marti MacAlister series; Gary Phillips; Robert Greer; Jake Lamar with If 6 Were 9 (2001) — one of a kind in his work; George P. Pelecanos using the Washington, DC, area for a backdrop; Norman Kelley whose Nina Halligan is drawn in Black Heat (1997) into the orbit of militant organizations and the history of the civil rights movement; Paula Wood’s Inner City Blues (1999), or Walter Mosley’s latest in the Easy Rawlins series, Little Scarlet (2004) that take the reader into the Los Angeles riots, in 1965 or in 1992... The substance in all of these authors’ fictions, and others’ in this teeming field,7 is the United States’ racial fault line: the question of African American identity and existence. The writers, many of them women in the last 25 years, have shown how black detective fiction can reach a new and wider audience as their stories comment on a tradition of mainstream detective writing in America while continuing aspects of the black detective tradition established from the start. Black writers continue to use a popular literary form to help define a distinctive African American culture and to comment effectively on issues of race, class, and gender. Black detective fiction has grown through a common sharing and reworking of themes and tropes such as the use of black detective personas, double conscious detection, black vernaculars and Hoodoo creations.



Bailey, Frankie Y. 1991. Out of the Woodpile: Black Characters in Crime and Detective Fiction. New York: Greenwood Press.

Bland, Eleanor. 2004. Shades of Black. Crime and Mystery Stories by African-American Writers. New York: Berkley Prime Crime.

Bruce, John Edward. 2002. The Black Sleuth. Ed. John Cullen Gruesser. Boston: North Eastern University Press.

Encarta Africana, 2000. 1999. Two CD set.

Gruesser, John Cullen (Editor). 1996. The Unruly Voice. Rediscovering Pauline Elisabeth Hopkins. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

— 2002. Black on Black: Twentieth Century African American Writing about Africa. Lexington: Kentucky University Press.

Johnson, Abby and Ronald. 1979. Propaganda & Aesthetics. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press.

Reid, Mark, Janine Euvrard, Francis Bordat and Raphaël Bassan, 1988. CinemAction n° 46, Le Cinéma noir américain. Courbevoie, Cerf.

Skinner, Robert E. 1989. Two Guns from Harlem: The Detective Fiction of Chester Himes. Bowling Green: Bowling Green State University Popular Press.

Soitos, Stephen. 1996. The Blues Detective: A Study of African American Detective Fiction. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press.

Thompson, Robert Farris. 1983. Flash of the Spirit: African and Afro-American Art and Philosophy. New York: Random House.

Van Deburg, William L. 1984. Slavery and Race in American Popular Culture. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

Woods, Paula. 1995. Spooks, Spies, and Private Eyes: Black Mystery, Crime and Suspense Fiction of the 20th Century. An Anthology.... New York: Doubleday.


1 Scott was Booker T. Washington’s secretary. Incensed by Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation”, he became the father of black cinema (in Donald Boogle’s words) when he produced “The Birth of a Race” (1918). In fact, Scott’s film (of which no entire copy remains) was not the first black movie. In 1910, William Foster created the first all-black film company in Chicago. The Johnson brothers followed suit in 1916 with the Los Angeles-based Lincoln Motion Picture Company. Oscar Micheaux is frequently named as the pioneer of African American cinema. In fact, only when the Lincoln rejected the adaptation of his novel (The Homesteader) to the screen did Micheaux decide to found his own company in 1919. “The Exile”, 1931, was the first black talking picture. Micheaux’s last film premiered in 1948. (Reid et al. 1988, pp. 35-42.)

2 Only 64 pages of it remain in the Schomburg Center, under the form of a microfilm. This novel had fallen into oblivion (Encarta Africana 2000 does mention Bruce’s other novel, The Awakening of Hezekiah Jones, 1916), until John Gruesser published an annotated version of it in 2002.

3 This caused her to lose her editorial position when, in 1904, an editor sympathetic to Booker T. Washington’s accommodating and go-slow policies took the magazine over.

4 His career as a journalist began in 1874 as a Washington correspondent for The New York Times. His militant entrepreneurial spirit led him to found his own paper (The Argus was published in Washington, IX) as early as 1879. He was active in journalism all his life, writing over the years (sometimes under the interesting penname Bruce Grit, which aptly connotes courage) for about 20 black newspapers as well as white papers nationwide. He founded the Negro Society for Historical Research in 1911, in association with Arthur A. Schomburg.

5 He was among Marcus Garvey’s most important contacts when the Jamaican first came to the US in 1916. He joined the Universal Negro Improvement Association after the red summer of 1919 and wrote columns both for the UNIA’s weekly, Negro World, and its Daily Negro Times.

6 See the title of the second volume of Himes’s autobiography, My Life of Absurdity.

7 All authors could not be mentioned here. Three internet sites prove useful (in spite of their many variations, and omissions) as directories and checklists of books:
- lists 38 authors;
- lists 32 writers and provides a checklist of titles;
- lists 22 authors.


Artist, independent scholar
Author of The Blues Detective. A Study of African American Detective Fiction. This book has won a Popular Culture Association award and American Library Choice Award. He worked with James Baldwin at the University of Massachusetts. He has also published many essays on African American literature and culture including pieces on Zora Neale Hurston, Chester Himes, Clarence Major and a complete analysis of African American art.

© Presses universitaires François-Rabelais, 2005

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