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“Polar noir”: Reading African-American Detective Fiction

Alice Mills
Claude Julien

I. Variations on a genre

Ishmael Reed’s Use of Detective Novel Prototypes

Yves Bonnemère


Ishmael Reed uses detective novel prototypes to debunk white men’s “superiority”. Gang warfare depicts an age-old worldwide fight between polytheism and monotheism. Based on the founding myth of ancient Egypt, white men are portrayed as the heirs of Seth, an animal-like god, whereas black men resemble Osiris, Seth’s brother, the anthropomorphic god. Reversing the stereotypes attached to Ham’s sons, Reed turns white men into the members of an accursed family, forever doomed to depravity and perversity.

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  • 1 The following abbreviations have been used for referencing purposes: YB for Yellow Back Radio Broke (...)

1In Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down, the central character, the Loop Garoo Kid says that a novel “can be anything it wants to be, a vaudeville show, the six o’clock news, the mumblings of wild men saddled by demons” (YB, 40).1 If one applies Reed’s aesthetic theory to the detective novel, the latter is only a starting-point, a structure, a formula.

2Elements of mystery stories, of classical and hard-boiled detective novels are resorted to for the writer to convey his own views of culture and religion. His purpose is not to hold the reader in suspense or to entertain him for the mere sake of entertainment. He often uses parody and satire because they are his religious and cultural weapons. In Reed’s work, gang warfare takes on world-wide dimensions. It illustrates two contending principles that have been at war for hundreds of centuries, and the Egyptian legend of Osiris and Seth is the founding myth underlying this world war.

3Reed borrows elements from detective novels but doesn’t really write detective novels in so far as he doesn’t stick to standard formulas. For instance, a character like the Loop Garoo Kid appears in a comic epic, Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down. The action is set in the Wild West. The novel itself is a take-off of conventional westerns, of yellow backs. It features the Loop Garoo Kid, an avenger defending the oppressed —children and black people— against the rich and adults (Drag, a cattle baron and the inhabitants of Yellow Back Radio). Unlike western heroes who use their guns, Loop Garoo triumphs over the villains thanks to his hoodoo powers only. He defends the same cause as PaPa LaBas in Mumbo Jumbo, Reed’s closest book to a detective novel. Like the black cowboy, PaPa LaBas is the writer’s spokesman though he isn’t an avenger but a houngan (a hoodoo priest in Haïti) and jacklegged detective both in Mumbo Jumbo and The Last Days of Louisiana Red. He voices the hoodoo counter-tradition whose champion the author is.

4Set in the 1920s, in the days of prohibition, Mumbo Jumbo refers to gang warfare at that time, and urban violence reminds us of Dashiell Hammett portraying corruption in American cities in his hard-boiled detective novels. A black character, Bud Jackson, has control over speakeasies in Harlem and is involved in fights against white gangsters. Biff Musclewhite, an ex-policeman with racist ideas and nominally curator of a famous New York Art Museum is actually a hired killer. He works for people heading white secret societies such as the Wallflower Order and its military organization, the Knights Templar whose leader is Hinckle Von Vampton, a defender of western values, and of the white man’s law and order. These white societies hire dubious characters who resist or attack the symptoms of “Jes Grew”", a black cultural and religious (hoodoo) movement in the twenties, in the Jazz Age.

5Starting from New Orleans, the Mecca of African American polytheism (hoodoo), Jes Grew, through music and dancing, spreads to the whole of the USA. White authorities are afraid lest Jes Grew should undermine white values and get the better of white-dominated American culture. The Wallflower Order and one of the major characters in Mumbo Jumbo —Von Vampton, Labas’s opponent— try to curb the power of Jes Grew and fight against dancing, music, jazz, the Harlem Renaissance, etc. Von Vampton has recourse to a variety of means: first, murder, that of Abdul Hamid, a Black Muslim, second the press: as the editor of The Sun, a New York paper, he defends Atonism, Reed’s word for monotheism, against the revival of hoodoo (polytheism) in the U. S. A. Third, he wages a cultural war: he acts as if he were interested in black artists and writers but he creates a black Android (“Safecracker” Gould, a white man disguised in blackface and who passes himself off as a black poet). His purpose is to undermine and put an end to Jes Grew’s power considered as a threat to the white man’s power and culture. Fourth, Von Vampton wants to retrieve the Jes Grew text, a sacred text, stolen by Moses, hidden in Solomon’s Temple (later on, the Templars’ headquarters). Hinckle Von Vampton, who is hundreds of years old, found it centuries ago in Jerusalem. The text is supposed to be a book written by Thoth, the patron of scribes in Egypt. It contains the essence of Osirian rites (polytheism). Reversing stereotypes, Reed portrays Von Vampton (a one-eyed man) and his companions as robbers, pirates, not only of things but also of black culture. Metaphorically, he is the vampire (Vampton) endeavouring to drain black Americans of their blood and of their distinctive culture.

6Confronting Von Vampton is PaPa LaBas, a figure close to the Haitian god Legba (or Eshu), a messenger between our world and the supernatural world. Like Hinckle, he is also in search of The Book of Thoth. He thinks he needs it for Jes Grew to fulfil its mission, for black culture to prevail. Like the detectives of classical detective stories, he makes use of reasoning and deduction and, after managing to decode a secret message, finds out The Book of Thoth under the Cotton Club in Harlem. Yet, he is unlike a Hercule Poirot because he also combines ratiocination with his occult knowledge, voyance. He is a voodoo priest at the head of the Mumbo Jumbo Cathedral and his hoodoo powers give him an insight into the problems he has to solve. Hoodoo helps him along with his inquiries.

7Although he is a central character in Mumbo Jumbo, he doesn’t always act on his own. He works with Haitians (one of whom is Benoit Battraville) fighting against the American occupation of Haiti in the days of the Harlem Renaissance. If LaBas appears for the first time in Mumbo Jumbo, he reappears in The Last Days of Louisiana Red, this time to fight against discord among blacks on the West Coast in the 1960s. Louisiana Red embodies the evil forces disrupting the black community. Reed refers here to Marxistinfluenced groups like the Black Panthers in the 60s. He calls them Moochers since he regards them as spongers, parasites. LaBas’s role is to investigate them and also to support the Work, an organization whose proponents defend hoodoo knowledge, a remedy whose healing power is supposed to cure the black community, to ward off the evil which besets it and to restore order and harmony among the blacks.

8So, all these remarks about some of Reed’s novels emphasize the fact that his fiction bears little resemblance to standard detective novels. Actually, detective novel formulas help him to depict and reconstruct various periods of American history from the black man’s point of view. The characters he uses are more types or archetypes than true-to-life characters.

9Robbers, pirates, perverts are recurrent characters so far as whites are concerned, and most of the time, he makes use of irony or its black version, signifying, to expose the white man’s cowardice in hilarious passages that entertain the reader more than suspense does. Nevertheless, irony isn’t only used to make us laugh but also to indict and satirize the white man’s power and culture, and also to deliver a message. The novelist’s aim is to assert the power of African American culture, a counter-culture, as superior to white culture. However, Reed makes the most of a white author to achieve his purpose, I mean Edgar Allan Poe. He often does a pastiche of parts of Poe’s tales. For instance, he is indebted to him for his parodic imitation of the atmosphere of Gothic novels when depicting the South in Flight to Canada. Some characters like Raven Quickskill or Lenore, Alfred’s fiancé, in The Free-Lance Pallbearers, are echoes of Poe’s “The Raven”. Besides, themes like perversity and depravity recur in each of Reed’s novels to characterise his villains, whites like Drag, the cattle baron in Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down, Swille the Southern planter in Flight to Canada, Harry Sam, the president in The Free-Lance Pallbearers. One may trace the literary influence of the theme of depravity back to Poe’s Imp of the Perverse, although Reed also connects it with the myth of Seth, the Egyptian god embodying death and evil. So, when Reed plays up the Egyptian heritage of black Americans, one may not see the influence of white authors in his work and at times, he appears to be a trickster attempting to outwit his reader.

10This is the case with The Gold Bug. In The Free-Lance Pallbearers,_U2 Polyglot carries on his research on Kafka’s Metamorphosis pushing a ball of dung with his long nose. U2 Polyglot isn’t unlike the sacred scarab, a symbol of eternal life in Ancient Egypt. Although Egypt plays a major part in Reed’s work and message, here he has most likely drawn his inspiration from Poe’s The Gold Bug. The capture of a scarab involving the discovery of a piece of parchment with a message to decode leads to a treasure hidden in a tree. Here, we aren’t far removed from the discovery, underneath the Cotton Club, of the box supposed to contain the Book of Thoth. Another example is most interesting. In The Murders in the Rue Morgue, the murderer is an orangutang, so is Hamadryas in The Last Days of Louisiana Red. As a telepath endowed with foresight, he helps the houngan detective LaBas until he kills one of the New York zoo keepers. As far as his characterization is concerned, Hamadryas does make us think of the orangutang in The Murders of the Rue Morgue, but also of Thoth, the baboon-faced Egyptian god, the god of knowledge and wisdom. Therefore, we can notice that two traditions merge in the same character: the white one and the black one. Through pastiche and parody, Poe’s work enables Ishmael Reed to develop his verve as a satirist and also to refer to two main cultural and literary currents in American culture. Reed’s detective novels appear to be modern moralities. They teach us lessons through irony and satire.

11The writer’s purpose is to debunk the myths that justify the white man’s power. In Reed’s work, history and fiction enable the reader to make out the major features of white men but the novelist’s aim differs from the historian’s in that he doesn’t endeavor to be “objective” in picturing the past. Actually, he resorts to laughter, a weapon against the white community. Above all, Reed is a satirist whose art is based on a reassessment of white history and culture. Yet, he doesn’t overlook the white literary tradition (Poe’s work for instance) but he makes the most of popular genres such as the detective novel or the western.

12Polytheism in the guise of the Loop Garoo Kid challenges and overthrows the white man’s economic power in Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down. Drag, the cattle baron, a character that brings Lucifer to mind partly because his abode is actually Hell, is sent to his death by the black cowboy who casts his spells upon him. Christianity is doomed to fail too: the preacher with his hazel stick is powerless and ridiculed by the Loop Garoo Kid. So is the Pope. Roles are reversed and hoodoo disrupts the very foundations of the white man’s economic and religious power. In Mumbo Jumbo, Ishmael Reed goes on with the good fight. PaPa LaBas outwits the white villains’ plans. The latter pretend to befriend black people to destroy them. Von Vampton, Biff Musclewhite, Safecracker Gould are impostors whose one and only interest is to fight on behalf of the white man’s supremacy. PaPa LaBas’s supernatural powers inherited from his Nigerian ancestors enable him to defeat his white enemies. If his fight is based on African American tradition, other struggles have the same aim and some subplots flesh out the whole novel. The Mutafikahs want to return African art to its cradle, to free it from the “centres of art detention” (i. e. American and European museums) because art can’t be cut off from its religious roots. As for the Abdul Hamid episode, it illustrates the dangers that the black community has to face. Islam, one more version of Atonism (monotheism) is a threat to Jes Grew and black culture, and so are Marxism and Christianity.

13Throughout his work, Reed resorts to satire when portraying two conflicting groups who fight each other on racial or religious grounds. Actually, these groups embody two conflicting principles: good (the black man) at war against evil (the white man). Such a binary opposition also discloses a fight between polytheism and monotheism, called Atonism in Mumbo Jumbo in reference to Aton, Amenophis IV’s or Akhenaton’s unique God, the Sun God in Ancient Egypt. Amenophis IV is notoriously famous since he made up his mind to get rid of the ancient Egyptian gods and is considered as the founder of monotheism.

14Ishmael Reed casts a critical and ironical look at the white man’s civilization as a whole. The history of western civilization is represented as a mere war of gangs and secret societies. In Mumbo Jumbo,_ Reed deals with America in the twenties, the days of prohibition. Gangs of killers like Al Capone’s fought one another to corner the underground market of liquor. In those gangland killings, the writer doesn’t only see a phenomenon caused by urbanisation but also an age-old struggle. The fight between the black, Buddy Jackson, and the white beer baron, Schlitz (MJ, 20) is part of a conflict between rival gangs which also changes into a world war between two antinomic worldviews, one based on polytheism, the other on Atonism. That is why in Mumbo Jumbo, Ishmael Reed can be said to extend the concepts of space and time. His novel refers to a struggle affecting the whole world, “a struggle between secret societies” (MJ, 19-20).

15In this fight between two contending principles, the whites appear to be shameless murderers spreading disorder and violence though they claim to be the advocates of reason. Referring to the Greeks, Reed says ironically: “the Athenians were so rational, so civilized they had to have a reason for everything, including barbarity” (LR, 70). The author contrasts white ethnocentrism based on supposedly universal reason with a view of the world from a hoodoo angle. On purpose, he passes from one form of ethnocentrism on to another form of ethnocentrism.

16Instead of the stereotyped view that the white man has of black people, Reed offers a counter-vision of the whites which is as stereotyped as theirs. The whites force a set of rules and values upon white culture which is supposed to be the norm of all cultures. Significantly, Biff Musclewhite, the curator of a famous New York museum in Mumbo Jumbo, is also a policeman —which can be interpreted as the white man imposing his views and standards upon other cultures. A Christian military organization, the Knights Templar, plays the part of a “Tac Squad for Western Civilization” (MJ, 63). The Judeo-Christian tradition, Atonism to use Reed’s word, means uniformity. It tends to level cultural differences when they are man’s richness. In Mumbo Jumbo, Von Vampton, who embodies the white man’s order, goes so far as to revolt against colours (MJ, 160). As for feelings, white civilization expresses them with restraint, hypocrisy the writer seems to say ironically when mentioning Moses’ “mother crying, civilized, dignified, not the piercing wailing from the viscera associated with the mourning Isis” (MJ, 212).

17Using a lot of shady characters in his detective novels, Reed depicts white men as killers, robbers, plunderers making havoc of all that Christian civilization disapproves of. The invasion of Haiti by American troops from the South illustrates this viewpoint. Soldiers destroy hoodoo temples (MJ, 155-156). When Reed portrays the white community in a stereotyped manner, he exposes the way white people caricature and judge African Americans, but when he describes the white man as a killer and a robber he also reverses the Anglo-Saxon clichés and stereotyped views of the blacks. This is how Reed holds the white man’s civilizing mission up to ridicule, white people being supposed to have brought light to the blacks living in the darkness of ignorance. The author’s criticism is all the harsher as it shows that the whites —who claim a prestigious heritage: that of the Greeks and the Romans— are largely influenced by Ancient Egypt. According to Reed’s thesis, quite close to Sheikh Anta Diop’s, Egypt is not only the cradle of black civilizations but also the cradle of all civilizations, including western civilization. So, the prestige of Judeo-Christianity is belittled. Moses and Christ join the camp of robbers, liars, traitors, impostors (MJ, 206, 213).

18If through such criticism, the novelist denounces the Judeo-Christian myth of brotherhood, a form of ideology justifying impostures and centuries of exploitation, he isn’t lenient toward some historical theories underlying modern Utopias. White history is debunked. Its self-proclaimed grandeur is played down. Reed sees it as gang warfare, and neither does he regard class struggle as the driving force of history. He considers that Marxism is highly influenced by the period of history which produced it. Therefore, it is outdated. So, no wonder if in Mumbo Jumbo laughter welcomes Woodrow Wilson Jefferson, when he tries to meet Marx and Engels in the 1920s!

19To do away with old or modern myths still alive in Western civilization, Reed refers to the founding myth of Ancient Egypt, a myth which underlies the set of themes found throughout his work. That is why the writer often portrays white characters as people looking alike, as if they were built on the same pattern. Actually, the author wants to demonstrate that the whites are all descendants from or avatars of the Egyptian god Seth. The latter was the rival and the murderer of his brother Osiris. He was often depicted as an animal, a wolf or a dog. He was the devil whereas his brother Osiris, the anthropomorphic god par excellence, looked close to nature and life.

20So, Reed’s characterization depends on this mythic rivalry, an opposition between animal and man, anti-nature and nature, death and life. One could have thought that the author’s characters were influenced by American history. They aren’t. For instance, white characters are no different from each other because they are nothing but variations on Seth’s personality, the accursed god of Ancient Egypt. Osiris, the ancestor of black people, symbolized fertility, fecundity and life whereas Seth embodied sterility, war, death, homosexuality, evil.

21The personalities of white people aren’t really accounted for historically but mythically. The satanic traits of Swille in Flight to Canada, of Drag in Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down and of Harry Sam in The Free-Lance Pallbearers are patterned on the god Seth. Thus, to condemn Western civilization and make his criticism all the harsher, Ishmael Reed resorts to a very old though very prestigious civilization. The portrait that the author draws of the white man is legitimized by an age-old myth. Man is no longer the white man, but the black man because he is descended from a black god, Osiris, whereas the white man’s ancestor is nothing but a god looking like an animal. Therefore, the Judeo-Christian civilization’s claim to superiority isn’t justified. White tradition is ridiculed, since the white man is part of the animal kingdom.

22Reversing the usual stereotypes related to Ham’s sons, cursed for ever, Ishmael Reed changes the white man into the member of an accursed family, for ever doomed to depravity. The white man becomes the very picture of perversity and Seth ranks first among perverts. As far as the black man is concerned, the line of descent goes from Osiris in Egypt, to Dionysius in Greece, to voodoo gods in Haiti, to Umbanda in Brazil and, finally, hoodoo gods in the U.S.A. Referring to hoodoo thought, in The Last Days of Louisiana Red, Reed portrays the Moochers (Marxist-influenced revolutionaries not unlike Black Power members on the West Coast in the 1960s) as victims or users of black magic worshipping petro deities just like Marie Laveau, a New Orleans mambo (hoodoo priestess). LaBas’s part as a detective is to fight against the forces of disorder that the Moochers represent. As a houngan (hoodoo priest), he practices the rada rites (white magic) to counter the Moochers’ violence and their evil, harmful influence. Descended from John the Conqueror, Marie Laveau’s adversary, LaBas applies the Workers’ principles. In other words, he acts according to the teachings contained in The Book of Thoth, the blacks’ Bible (The Jes Grew Text in Mumbo Jumbo). This is the only way according to PaPa LaBas and Reed, whose spokesman he is, to free the African Americans from the white man’s cultural, religious and political domination.

23As we know, in The Last Days of Louisiana Red and more particularly in Mumbo Jumbo, a cultural fight based on music, dancing and literature conceals and reveals a religious struggle. Jes Grew spreading to the whole of America refers to something deeper than a cultural movement: the confrontation between whites and white-influenced blacks on the one hand, and hoodoo followers on the other hand goes back to an age-old war between polytheism and monotheism.

24The local struggle between African Americans and white Americans takes on a world-wide dimension. Atonism (white power in Mumbo Jumbo)_tries to force its laws upon polytheistic civilizations. According to Reed, secret societies such as Christian orders (The Knights Templar, The Wallflower Order in Mumbo Jumbo) have fought for thousands of years against polytheism which will keep on resisting Christianity and Islam, and overcome them. In Mumbo Jumbo, Von Vampton is hundreds of years old. He is some kind of archetype, an allegory of the whites’ cultural and economic domination. Portrayed as a pirate, in medieval times he lost an eye in a crusade against the Infidels, Islam. He is the one who endeavors to deprive the blacks of their cultural and religious riches. Long ago, he found the Book of Thoth which had been hidden in Solomon’s Temple by Moses. Resorting to his magazine, The Benign Monster and a Talking Android he does his utmost to chase Jes Grew away from the U. S. A. but to no avail. He fails at the end of Mumbo Jumbo when he is arrested by Haitians representing hoodoo law and order, and taken to Haiti to be tried. Clues against him are numerous enough. He will be charged with conspiracy against hoodoo cultural and religious values. Reed depicts Von Vampton as an inheritor of Akhenaton (Amenophis IV) and his wife Nefertiti. Akhenaton, an Egyptian pharaoh who reigned from 1379 to 1362 BC. So, he lived more than three thousand years ago. He established a new religion centered on Aton, the Sun god (hence Atonism in Reed’s work) and rejected polytheism and the ancient Egyptian gods. Akhenaton’s attempt at forcing monotheism upon his people was a failure. Ancient Egyptian gods were worshipped again by his successors.

25Akhenaton is the ancestor of monotheistic religions: Judaism, Christianity, Islam and even Marxism, according to Reed who reverses the usual stereotypes related to Ham’s sons. The white man will fail because of the curse that is put on him. He is descended from Seth. Osiris’s brother and murderer embodies the forces of disruption and death whereas his brother represents natural forces and life. Seth, with his wolf-like head, is half human, half animal whereas Osiris is the anthropomorphic god whose descendants are the blacks. Thus, two conflicting forms of religion and civilization result from the myth of Osiris and Seth. The whites, together with the Greeks and the Romans are the heirs of Seth and Apollo whereas the blacks are the inheritors of Osiris and Dionysius. So, Reed has managed to prove the cultural and religious superiority of the blacks and of the African Americans over the whites. Such superiority is legitimized by the myth of Osiris, Seth and Isis.

26Monotheism and polytheism can be traced back to the Osirian mysteries containing both positive and negative aspects. The rada rites of voodoo (and hoodoo, its North American form) are an offshoot of the Osirian rites whereas monotheism was initiated by Moses who robbed Isis of The Book of Thoth (the Osirian mysteries) when she was in her petro (evil) aspect, hence she passed on her occult knowledge with her left hand (or black magic). So, Moses and Christians have only known the Bible, a distorted version, a left hand version of the Book of Thoth. Therefore, Christianity and all forms of monotheism are mere superstitions.

27In conclusion, Ishmael Reed’s use of detective novel prototypes serves his purpose as a committed writer, committed to polytheism. He is a trickster who makes use of the detective novel and various elements of it in his work to entertain his readers and convert them to his views of polytheism. At times, he takes off Poe and resorts to pastiche and parody for comic effect, but he also delivers a cultural and religious message. African American culture and religion are the heirs of the prestigious Egyptian civilization. Black Egypt is the cradle of civilization. Greek and Roman cultures, western civilizations are nothing but subcultures, minor offshoots of Ancient Egypt.


Works Cited

Reed, Ishmael. 1967. The Free-Lance Pallbearers. New York: Avon, 1977.

— 1969. Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down. New York: Avon, 1977.

— 1972. Mumbo Jumbo. New York: Avon, 1977.

— 1974. The Last Days of Louisiana Red. New York: Avon, 1977.

— 1976. Flight to Canada. New York: Avon, 1977.


1 The following abbreviations have been used for referencing purposes: YB for Yellow Back Radio Broke Down, LR for The Last Days of Louisiana Red, FC for Flight to Canada, and MJ for Mumbo Jumbo.


Independent scholar, retired.
Studied English as well as African anthropology. This was followed by degrees in sociology (General, Social and Tropical Africa). His Ph. D., History and Culture in Ishmael Reed’s Novels was defended in 1983 (Sorbonne). His involvement in African-American studies has been pursued through scholarly work published in a number of journals such as “Hoodoo as a Metaphor of migration in Mumbo Jumbo” (Paris: L’Harmattan, 2000), or a recent study of Percival Everett’s God’s Country due out soon.

© Presses universitaires François-Rabelais, 2005

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