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“Polar noir”: Reading African-American Detective Fiction

Alice Mills
Claude Julien

III. Women writers — women's sleuths

Valerie Wesley’s Tamara Hayle and Newark’s Past, Present, and Future1

John C. Gruesser


The turbulent history of Newark, New Jersey plays a prominent role in the seven novels of Valerie Wilson Wesley’s Tamara Hayle series. Three generations of the detective’s family represent the city’s past, present, and future; her hometown serves as the repository for her own memories and values; and specific locations in and around Newark symbolize the past and present lives of several characters.

Texte intégral

  • 1 This paper, which has been updated to include the latest novel in the Tamara Hayle series, was orig (...)
  • 2 The following abbreviations have been used for referencing purposes: WES for Where Evil Sleeps, DGG (...)

1Even more than Sam Spade and San Francisco, Spenser and Boston, and V. I. Warshawski and Chicago, Tamara Hayle and Newark are inextricably linked. Born in the often maligned city and raised in the projects, Valerie Wilson Wesley’s savvy black private eye and fiercely protective single mother declares, “I’m a Newark girl at heart, always will be” (WES 15).2 In addition to describing various locations in New Jersey’s largest municipality, the seven novels of the series provide readers with historical information about a city that has been losing industries and jobs since the 1930s and population since the 1950s. In her distinctive and often sassy voice, Tamara repeatedly stresses the profoundly devastating effects of the 1967 race riots — “the flames of [which] had charred the city’s soul as hard as burnt wood” (DGGH 4). Because both Tamara and Newark are survivors that are often overlooked and underestimated by the white male power structure, it is tempting and by no means inappropriate to view the protagonist as a symbol for the city. However, the nature of the relationship between Tamara and her turf is actually somewhat more complicated than this. The three generations of the Hayle family (Tamara’s parents, Tamara and her siblings, and Tamara’s son Jamal) represent the city’s past, present, and future; Newark serves as the repository for her memories and values; and specific locations in the city and the surrounding area at times represent the past and present lives of characters in the novels.

2Thoughts of her deceased parents, an occasionally absent and alcoholic father and a bitter and at times abusive mother continue to haunt the heroine. Tamara’s parents reflect the difficult times faced by the people of Newark in general and African Americans in particular in the years following the Second World War, as well as their long-range consequences. Tamara and her older brother symbolize Newark’s more immediate past and present circumstances. Johnny was a good man whose suicide remains the most disturbing event in Tamara’s life. His death represents not only the staggering loss of black male life in Newark during the tough years since the riots but also the unrealized potential contained in that life. Tamara, on the other hand, like the city itself, has possessed the strength to carry on, remembering and attempting to make sense of the past, successfully negotiating the often daunting challenges of the present, and creating and nurturing the future. Although he has experienced police brutality firsthand and endured the violent deaths of his half brothers, Jamal has managed through Tamara’s vigilance, love, and instruction to develop into a bright, sensitive, and happy young man with a legitimate opportunity for success ahead of him. One of that most endangered of species, a young black male in a violent city environment, Jamal stands for Newark’s future —a future which, after decades of decline and gloomy predictions, finally seems to be on the upswing.

3Tamara lives in her parents’ East Orange house “a cough and a wink from Newark” (NHP 39), explaining, “My roots run deep. I could never live far from Newark where they were planted, and my history and those I’ve lost cling to me no matter where I am-shadowing my dreams and walking in my present” (TDR 158). In the first novel in the series, When Death Comes Stealing, Tamara offers a brief synopsis of the history of her hometown: “Newark is a survivor city —an old fighter who won’t go down for the count. Johnny used to talk about how Broad Street stretched out —grand movie theaters, department stores, big-time musicians playing Newark first, and you couldn’t make it down the streets on a Saturday night. But everything changed after the’ 67 riots” (WDCS 15). In fact, Newark had been in decline since before the Second World War with affluent white residents fleeing to the suburbs, a shrinking tax base, a high crime rate, inadequate health care, and thousands of African Americans arriving from the South only to find insufficient, substandard, and over-priced housing, the worst of any major city in the country (Cunningham [1966] 299, 301; Hayden 5). Following the war, more public housing units were built in Newark than in any other city in the United States; however, routine maintenance did not take place even though money had been allotted for this purpose (Stummer 16). Initially all but denied access to these housing projects, black people later came to dominate these poorly maintained buildings as white people left the city in greater numbers. The city lost nearly 34,000 residents between 1950 and 1960, but in this decade the white population declined by an astounding 100,000. Whereas Newark’s population was over nine-tenths white at the start of World War II, by 1965 it was estimated that half of the city’s residents were black (Stummer 8; Cunningham [1966] 312-14). From 1950 to 1970 manufacturing jobs in Newark declined by nearly sixty thousand, and by January 1967 the unemployment rate among African Americans had risen to fifteen percent (Stummer 10; Hayden 5).

4Nevertheless, the riots indeed represent a watershed in the history of the city. Sparked by reports of a black cab driver being beaten by white policemen, rioting was inevitable because of the terrible conditions under which many of the city’s blacks lived and two actions recently taken by Mayor Hugh Addonizio, namely the appointment of a white political crony to the school board instead of a more qualified black candidate and the decision to displace thousands of downtown African American residents to build the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey. The riots began on Wednesday July 12th, less than two months after Newark celebrated its 300-year anniversary, and ended on Monday July 17th, 1967, a year in which 125 American cities experienced rioting. Although there was widespread looting of white-owned stores and unconfirmed reports of sniper fire, investigators would place the blame for the deaths, injuries, and destruction of black businesses on the 5367 fearful, heavily armed, trigger happy, almost exclusively white National Guardsmen and the 600 white state troopers called in on the morning of Friday July 14th to assist the 1400 Newark police officers, eighty percent of whom were white in a city with a majority black population (Cunningham [1988] 324; Stummer 18; Hayden 37, 45). New Jersey Guardsmen and State Police fired nearly 15,000 rounds of ammunition during their three days of occupation, causing one historian to remark, “Seldom has so much gunfire been directed at so few verifiable enemies” (Cunningham [1988] 322). Twenty-six people died, twenty-three by gunfire, over 1500 were wounded, more than 1600 were arrested, and in excess of 1000 stores and businesses were destroyed with property damage estimated at approximately ten million dollars (Cunningham [1988] 324-25). Only the riots in Los Angeles in 1965 (with 34) and Detroit in 1967 (with 40), cities with many more black residents than Newark, had higher death tolls (Wright 72). Shops and businesses closed, the corrupt mayor was indicted and lost the election in 1970 to Kenneth Gibson, an African American who would serve four terms as mayor until 1986 when he was defeated by Sharpe James, who has run the city ever since. Those who could afford to do so, including middle class blacks, left Newark. Over forty thousand would flee the city between 1970 and 1975 (Stummer 19), and overall from 1950 to 2000 the population of Newark fell from 438,776 to 273,546 people (Guide2Newark. com).

5Six of the seven Tamara Hayle novels take place in New Jersey: five in and around Newark and The Devil Riding (2000), in Atlantic City. Moreover, even though the third book in the series is set in Jamaica, by implication it reveals a great deal about the main character’s relationship to her hometown.

6When Death Comes Stealing (1994) introduces readers to Tamara, her family history, her relationship to her son, her detective business, and her milieu. Born in 1957, Tamara grew up in the Hayes Homes and witnessed the Newark riots, which began at the Fourth Police Precinct, right across the street. She vividly recalls the acrid smell of tear gas and the frequent sounds of gunfire. During the riots, Hayes Homes resident Eloise Spellman, a forty-one year-old mother of eleven, was killed by police fire when she peeked through the window of her tenth-floor apartment on the evening of Saturday July 15th (Cunningham [1988] 321; Hayden 83). The Hayle family moves to “a tiny two bedroom yellow and green cape” (WDCS 59) on Chestnut Terrace, a street off of South Orange Avenue in East Orange, in 1968. Her grandfather and grandmother, who had been a carpenter and a baker down South, moved to Newark during the Great Migration. In her dealings with various people, Tamara often recalls the folk wisdom of the latter, who raised her more than her mother had done. Her alcoholic father worked in paint factory in Down Neck Newark; her abusive mother was a domestic worker. Her brother Johnny, a respected Newark cop prone to depression, killed himself in 1977 (WDCS 123) for reasons that are either unknown to Tamara or she is unwilling to share.

7Her brother’s death changes her life (Tamara is the one who finds his body), causing her to marry De Wayne Curtis when she is only twenty-one (WDCS 7). At about twenty-two, she has a son, Jamal, with Curtis whom she later divorces. In part because of Johnny, she decides to become a cop in 1983, serving as the only black and sole female police officer in Belvington Heights, “a mostly white suburb north of Newark” (WDCS 105). When some of her fellow police officers harass Jamal, beat up his babysitter, and joke about doing so, unaware that her son was involved, she quits the department after five years: “Jamal had been nine when it happened–the reason I left the force, his initiation into black manhood” (WDCS 111). Her boss, Chief Roscoe L. DeLorca, is upset by her decision; however, they continue to respect each other, and her work sometimes brings them together. Except for a married older sister named Pet, she has no other family–it’s just herself and Jamal she asserts–and it is her fiercely protective maternal instincts that make her a unique detective. Tamara opens up her own private investigation business, Hayle Investigative Services, Incorporated in 1988, and three years later moves her business into an office “on the corner of Main Street and South Harrison in the city of East Orange” (WDCS 60) in a building owned by her friend Annie. She shares a mailbox with Wyvetta Green, who runs a salon called Jan’s Beauty Biscuit, which often proves a good place to learn about people in the community. Tamara does not make much money, with outstanding bills and a small client base, and she drives a decrepit 1982 Diesel Jetta, nicknamed the Blue Demon, until it is destroyed by thugs in the late 1990s.. Although her profession often places her in harm’s way and this comes to concern her son, she loves her job and the freedom it affords her. Like Dashiell Hammett’s Spade and Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, she has her own code of ethics, knows that she is good at her job, and believes it is the only profession she could ever find fulfilling. In 1993 when Tamara is thirty-six and Jamal fourteen, she is hired by DeWayne to investigate the seemingly accidental death of one of his sons. As more of DeWayne’s sons die, it becomes clear that there is a serial killer at work. Eventually Tamara must travel to her ex-husband’s childhood home in Virginia to find the information that enables her to solve the murders, although her final confrontation with the killer, in which she saves Jamal, occurs back in New Jersey.

8Even though much of the action of Devil’s Gonna Get Him (1995) occurs in Belvington Heights, this is very much a book about Newark past and present. At a party thrown by fabulously wealthy investment banker Lincoln Storey at Jackson Tate’s restaurant, recently relocated to Belvington Heights, Storey dies of an allergic reaction to peanut butter deliberately mixed into the bean dip. When the police charge Tasha Green, who worked as the caterer at the party and who had been sleeping with Storey, with murder, Tamara is hired by Tasha’s sister Wyvetta to find the real killer. Storey’s second wife and stepdaughter, Alexa, hate him, the former marrying him for his money and then taking drastic measures when he threatens to deprive her of her opulent lifestyle, which includes a mansion in the Heights. The closing of Tate’s restaurant on West Market St. in Newark upsets many residents of his hometown. He not only has sold his soul for his fancy new restaurant but later resorts to desperate actions when Storey threatens to sell his restaurant and expose unflattering information about him and his son. The novel suggests that the two murder victims, first Storey and later Tate, both raised in Newark, do not belong in Belvington Heights. Tamara’s revelation at the end of the novel that “Alexa Storey deeded Tate’s restaurant to Tasha, who promptly moved it back to Newark and renamed it Tasha’s after she had her son” (DGGH 274) has considerable significance, indicating that the two Newark-born dead men who made good but lost their way have in some sense returned to their hometown –Tate through the restaurant, and Storey through the son that Tasha has borne.

9Wesley’s Jamaican novel, Where Evil Sleeps (1996) concerns impulses, instincts, and inner voices. Against her better judgment, Tamara agrees to accompany Lilah Love to a dangerous Kingston bar, only to wind up with a dead man’s blood on her dress and no money or identification. Later she uncharacteristically allows greed to coax her into helping Lilah look for a considerable sum of money she knows is dirty, thereby further involving herself in a spiral of destruction and death. Even though Jamal’s impending college expenses are her motive, she knows what she’s doing is wrong and frequently recalls her grandmother’s warnings about ill-gotten gains. Eventually she eradicates the personification of evil in the book, but does not find peace. Away from the Newark area, she goes native, losing sight of who she is, what’s wrong and right, but when she returns home she is back on track. As she explains at the book’s conclusion, “you don’t see men die and expect to live your next few months unscathed. It changes you in ways you can’t imagine, and I guess my leaving that money alone was one of them. Despite my moral stance, I was still depressed. I’d killed a man [...], putting evil in its place, but I was haunted by all that had happened” (207). The fact that Tamara refuses to touch the Cayman Island account worth more than $30,000 that she acquires from her Jamaican vacation, not even mentioning it in subsequent books as she struggles to get by and worries about raising her son’s college tuition, indicates that her moral compass has been righted.

10In another Newark novel, No Hiding Place (1997), Bessie Raymond hires Tamara to find the killer of her son Shawn, who had been Johnny’s little brother in a Newark police program called Project TC two decades earlier. Although Tamara does not recognize Bessie, she notices a resemblance between her and a teenaged boy, Shawn’s son Rayshawn, who tried to hold her up with a. 38 around midnight near her office. Tamara suspects retired hero policeman Gus Lennox, father of Gina, whom Shawn had impregnated and abused, but he has a seemingly ironclad alibi. With help from a six yearold girl and her friend Annie, Tamara is able to figure out who killed Shawn and unravels the cycle of betrayal and death that binds the Raymond and Lennox families. However, she continues to blame herself for not going to the police about Rayshawn’s attempted mugging of her, though she has serious reservations about the police and their treatment of black youths. When it comes to the police in Newark, the novel asserts that it’s no longer strictly a white-black thing, as it was for so many years. Rather, it’s a good cop-bad cop dichotomy, her brother Johnny representing the former and Gus Lennox the latter. In the Epilogue, Tamara contends, “Johnny’s debt” to the Raymond family incurred by committing suicide and thereby abandoning Shawn “would finally be paid” by her solution of his murder (NHP 206).

11In the Newark novel Easier to Kill (1998), the city’s checkered past exerts a powerful influence despite the improvements that have recently been made. A popular radio personality named Mandy Magic hires Tamara when she receives a disturbing note following the death of one of her employees. Early in the book, Tamara drives to the projects where she and Magic grew up and contemplates their legacy:

They were abandoned now and stood like ugly monuments to somebody’s dream that you could pile families like egg crates on top of one another and nothing would end up broken. [...] Many families had survived and thrived, and they had left, their spirits and wills stronger for the experience. I was stronger for it-I knew that now. [...] I wondered which of Mandy Magic’s secrets these dark walls still kept (27-28).

12When two more employees are killed in less than a week, Tamara knows that someone or something from Magic’s past has come back to torment and will eventually kill her. Characteristic of her use of the city throughout the novels, Wesley depicts a decrepit part of Newark that symbolizes the dark secret lurking behind Magic’s success. When her investigation takes her to this dangerous location, Tamara pauses:

There was a dreariness to it, a deadness that made me fearful of what I would find. [...] I hesitated for a moment wondering if maybe I should turn around and head back to the parts of the city that I knew: downtown with its sparkling new arts center and newly awakened hope. The Ironbound, with its restaurants sweet with the smells of lobster and saffron rice. The Central Ward fish-fry joints and incense-scented mom-and-pops stores. But this was a part of the city that knew no hope, rougher even than the projects where I grew up (125).

13Although Magic fires Tamara from the case when she pushes the talk show host to be more forthcoming about her past, acting on a sudden insight, she returns to Magic’s home and helps to prevent the killer from murdering anyone else. Ultimately, the novel suggests that people must accept who they are, where they come from, and what they have done. Unlike Magic, who tries unsuccessfully to evade her own history, Tamara says “a silent prayer of thanks for the life I did have. That I didn’t feel like I had to lie about everything in my past or, for the most part, my present” (102).

14In Wesley’s most recent novel, Dying in the Dark (2004), the brutal murder of her best friend from high school causes the protagonist to reflect on the changes that she and her hometown have undergone, as well as on those that may lie ahead. After decades of decline, there is a new attitude in Newark: “In the last few years, many good things have happened. [...] NJPAC, the arts center that they built a couple years ago, has changed the mood here forever. Property values are rising, carjacking is down, and there’s pride in people’s voices when they say where they live” (DITD 31). At times, Tamara regards the city’s reinvigorated present and potentially even brighter future as a return to its more prosperous days before the riots. Driving through an affluent section of the city, she recalls the Newark of her youth: “I was proud of how beautifully the neighborhood had been preserved and pleased to claim it for my city. It was like those streets I remembered driving down with my father when I was a kid. [...] Weequahic [Park], Chancellor Avenue, Lyons Avenue. I could still hear the names of those grand places rolling off my father’s lips. Someday they would be back to what they were; I hoped I’d be around to see it” (DITD 109-10). Yet, like Tamara and other characters in the novel who are haunted by the past, Newark cannot easily escape its history. Citing a real-life case of child abuse and malnutrition in a local foster home that made front-page headlines in the New York and New Jersey newspapers, Tamara observes, “However, there are ominous signs here, too. A few months back, a child’s battered body was found in a closet of a filthy basement. His two little brothers, also starved and beaten, had been left for dead. It was a kick in the face of the city, and everybody felt the city’s shame. [...] A death like that leaves its mark on a city like mine; it’s a reminder that we have a long way to go” (31). Although her investigation forces Tamara to confront and make peace with her past, thoughts of the future, nearly always connected to Jamal, are never far away. She repeatedly refers to his imminent departure for college, which she knows will significantly alter her life. After solving the murders of Celia and several others, she credits the killer with teaching her that “If you hold too tightly to your past, you’ll destroy your future” (DITD 221), a lesson that has relevance for Tamara vis-à-vis her son and for the city of Newark.

15Neither Tamara, nor her creator, attempts to avoid the often unsettling history of Newark. Valerie Wesley effectively weaves the story of the city and Tamara’s family history into the plots of her mysteries. Smaller and less glamorous than Los Angeles, Chicago, or New York, Newark witnessed much during the twentieth century —the Great Migration, urban decay, white flight, the 1967 riots, the difficult years of struggle that followed, and the current inklings of a somewhat brighter future. Like Tamara, the city’s history is what it is, revealing many things about the legacy of race relations and the current state of inner-city life in the United States.


Works Cited

Cunningham, John T. 1966. Newark. Newark: New Jersey Historical Society.

— 1988. Newark. Rev. and exp. ed. Newark: New Jersey Historical Society.

Hayden, Tom. 1967. Rebellion in Newark: Official Violence and Ghetto Response. New York: Random.

Stummer, Helen M. 1994. No Easy Walk: Newark, 1980-1993. Philadelphia: Temple UP.

Wesley, Valerie Wilson. 1995. When Death Comes Stealing. New York: Avon.

— 1996. Devil’s Gonna Get Him. New York: Avon.

— 1996. Where Evil Sleeps. New York: Putnam.

— 1997. No Hiding Place. New York: Putnam.

— 1998. Easier to Kill. New York: Putnam.

— 2000. The Devil Riding. New York: Putnam.

— 2004. Dying in the Dark. New York: One World.

Wright, Giles R. 1988. Afro-Americans in New Jersey. Trenton: New Jersey Historical Commission.


1 This paper, which has been updated to include the latest novel in the Tamara Hayle series, was originally delivered during the Winchester (UK) 2003 CAAR conference. A different version appears in F. Gysin & C. S. Hamilton, eds.: Complexions of Race. The African Atlantic. Hamburg: Lit Verlag, 2005, pp. 207-226.

2 The following abbreviations have been used for referencing purposes: WES for Where Evil Sleeps, DGGH for Devil’s Gonna Get Him, NHP for No Hiding Place, TDR for The Devil Riding, WDCS for When Death Comes Stealing, ETK for Easier to Kill, DITD for Dying in the Dark.


Professor of English at Kean University, New Jersey. He is the author of three books, including Confluences: Postcolonialism African American Literary Studies, and The Black Atlantic (University of Georgia Press, 2005). He also edited The Unruly Voice: Rediscovering Pauline Elizabeth Hopkins (Illinois, 1996) and The Black Sleuth by John Edward Bruce (Northeastern, 2002).

© Presses universitaires François-Rabelais, 2005

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