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“Polar noir”: Reading African-American Detective Fiction

Alice Mills
Claude Julien

III. Women writers — women's sleuths

How Are You Doing with Your Pain?1 Violence in Black Women’s Crime Fiction

Nicole Decure


Black women’s crime fiction is a literature of empathy, denunciation, anger and commitment. The authors write from a double perspective: women as targets both of male violence and of racial and racist violence. This article examines the motives for killing used in this fiction, the place of the woman detective and the suffering caused by the various forms of violence.

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  • 1 A translation of Raymond Depardon’s 1996 film title, Afriques: Comment ça va avec la douleur?, in w (...)

“God. Negroes and their pain. What the tuck were we going to do if suddenly it all did go away? Would we even know who we were any more?”
Charlotte Carter,
Coq au Vin, 37.

1In crime fiction, I am not interested so much in the crime as in the fiction. I do not read mystery novels to solve the crime before the writer. For me, crime fiction is a form of escape fiction, totally unrealistic with its invincible heroine (or hero) and, at the same time, totally realistic in its portrait of contemporary society and its reflection on social issues. These are, to me, the indispensable ingredients of a good novel.

  • 2 “In Search of our Sisters’Mean Streets: The Politics of Sex, Race and Class in Black Women’s Crime (...)

2A few years ago, I concluded an article on black women’s crime fiction2 by wondering who killed whom, realizing that crime rarely crossed the barrier of race in those books. But that was not the main concern of the article then. Now, the numbers of black women crime writers have grown and there are a substantial number of books to explore. At the last count, as of March 2001, over 20 authors had published about 60 books, excluding juvenile fiction. I shall be looking at the work of 18 women writers.

3When we examine the question of crime in black women’s crime fiction, we have to consider, more broadly speaking, the question of violence. Not all violence results in killing, far from it. But, if murder is the ultimate violence, other forms of violence can be extremely damaging and hurtful, maiming people for the rest of their lives. If we take for granted the fact that women’s crime fiction reflects, to a large degree, through the main heroine, the beliefs and values of its author, then the exploration of violence by black women is particularly interesting because they experience this violence and write about it from, at least, a double perspective: as targets of male violence (a universal women’s experience) and as targets of racial and racist violence, both historically and today in urban communities.

4This racial dimension is what distinguishes black women’s fiction from white women’s fiction from which it is, if not totally absent, at least rare, and seen from the outside, not the inside. It is what gives black women’s crime fiction its particular voice (or rather voices). And what differentiates black women’s fiction from black men’s fiction is the gender dimension which is, most of the time, a truly “sexual” dimension in the sense of “sexual activity” which is itself, too often, a euphemism for rape and abuse. The way the two oppressions, sexual and racial, are so often intertwined and inseparable makes the peculiar flavor and richness of this fiction.

Murder: reality and fiction

5Since we are talking about crime fiction, let us start by examining the place of murder in black women’s fiction.

6First, and that might be a distinguishing trait in black women’s fiction (and men’s too), a lot of killing takes place. In some books the body count is extremely high; 7 or 8 corpses is not uncommon. This is as far as one can get from the one body in the library or in the gazebo which, once upon a time, engaged all the attention of the idle amateur detective.

  • 3 http://www.ojp.usdoj/bjs/homicide

7The statistics are brutal. The figures provided by the U. S. Department of Justice (1999)3 tell us that a black person is six times more likely to get killed and seven times more likely to commit homicide than a white person. Furthermore, in a sort of sick form of discrimination, these homicides are mostly intra-racial: 94% of blacks are killed by blacks and 86% of whites are killed by whites. Still, inter-racial killing is not as rare (26%) as inter-racial marriage (3%).

8There seems to be an escalation in this form of self-inflicted genocide. In Judith Smith-Levin’s Do not Go Gently, a woman reflects on this:

If our men are not in jail, or into drugs, then they’re out there using each other for target practice. I don’t know what’s wrong with us. We don’t have to worry about the Skinheads and the Klan, we’re doing their job for them! (100)

9Women kill far more in fiction than in reality. More than a third of all the murders are committed by women in fiction whereas, in real life, they commit only 12. 5% of the murders. Men are 9 times more likely to kill than women but only 3 times more likely to be killed. They kill more men than women which is understandably the same in fiction, although the proportions are different. Finally, white women kill more than black women in fiction whereas in real life the opposite is true.

10Multiple murders are rare in real life. They abound in fiction: a killer kills several persons (not at the same time). The chain of murders reflects a fatal chain of events: one murder leads to another, then to another and so on, as murderers usually try to escape discovery and retribution.

  • 4 The only ones I can think of are Lisa Saxton’s Caught in a Rundown, BarbaraNeely’s Blanche and the (...)

11Still, the problem is not really whether statistics reflect reality but rather what the writers are telling us through portraits of these wasted lives. Murder is the element around which, with few exceptions4, the whole plot revolves so it has to mean something other than the cleverness of the detective in solving an intellectual puzzle.

12The most prevalent cause of crime is, unsurprisingly, money –often linked to drugs. This is the case for example in Charlotte Carter’s Rhode Island Red, where everybody wants to get hold of a mythical saxophone (hence worth a fortune) full of coke given to Charlie Parker as a bribe to play at a wedding. It is also the drugs/money association that is at the basis of the murders in Margaret Cuthbert’s The Silent Cradle. A doctor kills through a junkie who needs money for his daily doses.

13Some crimes are clearly racist. In Eleanor Bland’s Tell no Tales, a white policeman kills his black pregnant girlfriend and convinces a black man to take the rap. In Judith Smith-Levin’s Do not Go Gently, a white man rapes black women and it is the “black” part of the woman he is after. Elaborate biographical explanations are given but in her commendable desire to deal with the complexity of relationships between the races and sexes, the author gets her signals mixed more than once and the blame too often falls on the victims. But if the narrative fails to convince, it works at the symbolic level: because two men attack the same women, although for different reasons, the hatred against women and blacks is seen as generic, not just the idiosyncrasy of a disturbed individual. What works really well is that we get into the mind of the rapist and see how the hatred works. It is lieutenant Starletta Duvall’s involvement in the case as a black woman that really saves the plot. Her sense of being personally threatened through these women gives her a desire for revenge:

Black women are being slaughtered. If I don’t find out what’s going on and who’s behind it, another one of my sisters is going to die simply because of the color of her skin [...] How many have to die because we happen to be black? (158)

14Whites in general, men and women alike, are evil in Judith Smith-Levin’s novels, be they rich white teenagers in Green Money, a white man (a sadistic rapist), in Do not Go Gently or a white woman in The Hoodoo Man. To offset this, there is Star’s perfect white lover, Mitchell and her partner (but Italian does not count as white!) The crimes committed by Blacks are more readily excused, at the personal level at least, if not at the societal level.

15An interesting variation on the “racism” motive, although far-fetched especially after all the red herrings and the terrible confusion about who kills whom, is found in Charlotte Carter’s Coq au Vin in which remorse at betraying black people is expressed. The murderer is ashamed of what he has done, stealing black country people’s music to make money for himself:

I remember how he talked about the blessedness of black people from the country. Grace was the word he used. When he hatched that scheme, it was like he was stealing the grace from his people and renouncing his own blessedness. He must have been so profoundly ashamed of what he’d done that he had to kill everyone who knew about it. He wasn’t just killing people, he was killing his shame. (191)

16In Somebody Else’s Child, Terry McMahan Grimes could have developed the racist motive for murders committed by a white woman who wants to protect her son’s political career and kills black people who might know about her late husband’s past as an abortionist, and the father of a black child who let his girlfriend die: black lives are not worth much and can be dispensed with. But it is just the mother-hen syndrome that emerges here.

17Hiding one’s color is a recurrent motive to kill. Pauline Hopkins used this ploy, not so much as a motive for crime but as a source of pain and disruption both in “Talma Gordon” and in Hagar’s Daughter at the beginning of the 20th century. Recently, in A Darker Shade of Crimson, Pamela Thomas-Graham has used it really as motive for murder by a Harvard president hiding his colour. Grace F. Edwards has a mother killing her daughter (and others) to hide her “colour” in A Toast before Dying.

18Sexist crimes are often inseparable from racist ones as we have seen above. Which part is woman hatred and which part racial hatred is difficult to determine.

19Penny Mickelbury examines crimes against women, which she considers a “fundamental issue” in Night Songs (26). She deplores that they are not recognized as hate crimes. Gianna Maglione, the white lieutenant, accuses her boss of ignoring this reality whereas if all the victims had been black it would be considered a hate crime (25). The problem is that, at the end, Mimi Patterson, the black journalist, realizes that the 10 women killed were black (210) and the crime against gender turns into a crime against race. How could this have escaped her or Gianna? This is last-minute thinking without rereading the whole novel. After the resolution, the race factor does not really add anything as it is too late to weave it into the investigation and it just gets a short statement about “the pain of knowing that there were people who believed her life had no value because of her race” (210). In fact, these are both racist and sexist crimes, it is black women who are killed.

20Homophobia is the motive behind the murders in Penny Mickelbury’s second novel, Keeping Secrets as, according to the narrator, “Being queer in America [...] was one of the few things worse than being Black. It was possible to be forgiven the color of one’s skin, the assumption being that one had no choice in the matter. But to love one’s same sex-that was something else.” (47)

21Homophobia is trans-gender and trans-race. At one point, black journalist Mimi Patterson realizes that there is an order to the killings: white man, black man, Hispanic man, white woman, black woman. The killer is stopped before we get to the Hispanic woman. This is truly “equal opportunity death”. This story enables the author, through her white policewoman heroine Gianna Maglione who is the head of a Hate Crime Unit, to develop her ideas about hate in America which targets all kinds of people especially as she wants to understand “how it happens that a person hates enough to kill” (54). Hate is “big business” in most of America (Night Songs, 14). But, as too often, the real motive turns out to be a personal experience and it makes phobias (racial or sexual) personal idiosyncrasies rather than social ills.

22An omnipresent feature in black women’s fiction is the fact that the present murder often has a cause in a more or less distant past. A past event triggers a whole chain of events. Past traumas are not forgotten. They poison people’s lives until they have to do something about it. This is often presented as a form of madness. Certainly, in Eleanor Bland’s Done Wrong, two of the three girls, now women, are seriously disturbed. Other examples are Tell no Tales, by the same author, where the murder of a black girl 30 years ago has repercussions today. In Valerie Wilson Wesley’s Easier to Kill the rape of Mandy by her stepfather resulted in her leading a wild life, having a baby daughter in poor circumstances and killing her. Twenty years later, murders are committed by the boyfriend to avenge this death. The murders in Charlotte Carter’s Rhode Island Red originate, as we have seen, in a story about Charlie Parker. Years later, people are still killing one another to get hold of his saxophone. In Coq au Vin, it is a music scam that took place twenty years ago which triggers the murders in the book. In Judith Smith-Levin’s Do not Go Gently, the present murders originate in the childhood of the rapist. The rapist’s father left his wife for a black woman; subsequently, his mother used him as her lover, hence his hatred of black women. In Martha McMahan Grimes’s Somebody Else’s Child, a woman kills eight women so as to protect her son’s political career by erasing all traces of a “shameful” past, thirty years ago. And in Penny Mickelbury’s Keeping Secrets the murderer turns out to have killed her husband twenty years before on discovering he was gay. Out of the mental hospital, she starts killing again, gays who want to come out of the closet: she wants to save their partners from the embarrassment.

23Does this desire to connect past and present have anything to do with coming to terms with the past of slavery, the mystery of people’s origins and with the more recent past of official racial segregation and discrimination? It certainly is a pessimistic vision because it seems that if the past was bad, the present cannot be better. Paula Woods gives her own explanation:

  • 5 Woods, Paula L. 1998. “The Birth of a Cop.” Mystery Readers Journal 14: 3.

Because I love L. A. and feel it’s always gotten a bad rap as a tarted-up tinseltown with no history or culture, I also tried to bring a bit of historical perspective to the proceedings and predicaments in which Charlotte finds herself embroiled. For example, in Inner City Blues, which is set in the 1992 riots, Charlotte unravels the long-ago disappearance of a black radical, which gave me a chance to comment on everything from the Zoot Suit Riots of 1943 to the Black Panthers and the Symbionese Liberation Army.5

24Indignation is a reaction to murder or not, depending on who dies, for example indignation at the murder of children, or relatives or friends of the heroine, or innocent passers-by. There can be downright satisfaction as with Blanche and the sheriff in Blanche on the Lam.

25Indignation escalates one notch when the killing is particularly odious or vicious and when we get to see some of the life and thinking of the killer. In Inner City Blues, the killer of the heroine’s baby and husband is not a person we get to know so we remain with our primary indignation. But in Green Money the killers (in the first murder) are teenagers who are “just having fun” and whose minds we get into a bit and that makes them real persons and not just killing machines. In the same way as we get to love the heroine, we get to hate the villains.

26But there is also overkill, as if the writers, like their murderers, could not stop after the first killing. In Green Money, the first woman, the bag-lady, is killed in horrible circumstances: although she was an awful person, a racist, did she deserve to burn alive? Perhaps after all, if we think of the Ku Klux Klan. With the second murder, a prostitute bled to death, we feel more sympathy, especially as she was a good friend of the heroine and we are made to empathize with her pain. But when it comes to the third murder, with parts of a woman’s body carefully placed in an ice-box, too much becomes too much and it stops proving anything, especially as this murder is not related to the others and is just a common murder about money whereas the first murders meant to show the dangers of violent video games and the dehumanization of rich white kids out on a power trip.

Other forms of violence: -1-at the personal level

27All the women, except Nora DeLoach, give instances of verbal sexist violence. The heroine is the target, among others. These are women who “do not know their places.” It seems that the police force is the worst place for this type of behavior, the targets being female officers. Eleanor Bland makes Marti MacAllister the target of her colleagues Slim and Cowboy’s sexist jokes. Although this is taken calmly, the sheer repetitiveness of it, book after book, and the fact that the two cops (one black, one white) are seen as immature and faintly despicable, drives home the obnoxiousness of this form of harassment.

28All, except Nora DeLoach, also report instances of verbal racist violence. The heroine may not always be the target, but other people are. Tamara Hayle, Valerie Wilson Wesley’s heroine, left the police because her colleagues insulted her son and his friends. Similarly, Theresa Galloway, Terry McMahan Grimes’s protagonist, has to deal with the damage caused to her son by racist insults at school. Mali Anderson, Grace Edwards’s central character punched a cop for putting a poster representing an ape on her locker and got suspended from the NYPD. Penny Mickelbury mentions anti-Jewish insults in the course of one of her narratives. BarbaraNeely points out derogatory forms of address and the lack of respect of whites towards the black maid.

29Those two forms of violence, sexist and racist, are often combined, “black bitch” being the most common insult but a wide range is offered throughout the novels. Starletta Duvall is called a “just hot spade broad” (Do not Go Gently, 13), a prostitute in Night Songs is called “stupid nigger cunt” (2). Cooper, the white male cop in Paula Woods’s Inner City Blues is also verbally abusive on both counts.

30Physical sexist violence is very present in all those narratives, mostly sexual abuse, but also sheer physical battering of the strong (husband or father or even brother) against the weak. Most women have stories of rape. Blanche, BarbaraNeely’s detecting maid, was raped by an employer’s brother. In Chassie West’s Sunrise, girls (black and white) are raped, photographed naked (by white men) and do not dare complain, especially the black girls: it is a white man’s word against a black woman’s. When they report it, nothing happens. But here again, the desire to surprise at the end weakens the discourse and the plot. It destroys the political message. A white woman is raped. She kills the rapist and the man who saw her do it because she wants to marry a rich man and spoilt goods were not acceptable fifteen years ago! And now, she kills the good doctor with the heel of her shoe because he might find out the truth. The reader, who first empathized with the victims of rape, is left with this woman for whom rape is not so serious after all since all she is interested in is money and she will kill to preserve it. No question here of public opinion having evolved about rape. Similarly, in Nora DeLoach’s Mama Traps a Killer several women are raped. But as this just a red herring and the main story loses strength.

31The writers seem especially concerned with abuse of young girls by fathers or stepfathers. All of Eleanor Bland’s novels deal with this, often as a central part of the plot. It reflects the involvement of the author in her personal life on this issue. In Dead Time, she deals with runaway children, abused and raped, who live on the margins of society, in the street. In Slow Burn, she writes about the forced prostitution of 10-12 year-old girls (preferably black of a light shade) for kiddie porn. It seems that, to Eleanor Bland, the violence of murder is not the most horrifying. Marti MacAllister, the heroine, copes with it coolly, professionally. Often, murder is but the conclusion, or the consequence, or other forms of violence which have sometimes gone on for years. A murder is quickly done. Abuse of all kinds can last for years. Gone Quiet is the story of a man who abused young girls sexually, his own stepdaughters and daughter and neighbors’ girls. The girls become traumatized adults. A weakness of the book (a fictional weakness but a realistic conclusion) is that the victims are too distressed to seek revenge and a third party does it instead. In Keep Still, the root of the murder is also the abuse of children, especially that of a seven-year-old girl abused by her parents, who complained and was sent away to a foster family with her brothers. When the children were given back to their parents, the girl was killed for “telling” and one of the brothers took on the role of his father as “punisher”.

32In Judith Smith-Levin’s The Hoodoo Man, a teenager is repeatedly beaten, sexually abused and then sold to a homosexual voodoo man. Egged on, or hypnotized by a white “witch” woman using “black” magic, he kills his whole family: his father for having beaten him, his mother for letting him do it and his brothers to save them the pain of being taken away and put in institutions. Having a white woman trigger him into killing diminishes the horror of his own act and is a nice fictional device to alleviate the guilt. But it also says, in a way, that abuse is not so terrible and that, left to his own devices, he would have done nothing about it. The white woman here is clearly evil as she also tries to steal Star’s boyfriend, an unforgivable sin.

33Other examples of abuse are Mandy Magic, in Wesley’s Easier to Kill, who was raped by her stepfather, Patricia Conley (in Evelyn Coleman’s What a Woman’s Gotta Do) who was abandoned, then raped by her foster father or the horrific description of a crack-house with girl child prostitutes in Grace F. Edwards’ If I Should Die. BarbaraNeely too is very much concerned with the abuse, sexual or not, of children. Blanche will intervene every single time. Her description, in the fourth novel of the series, of Blanche’s own rape and of how this has affected her is very powerful.

34Many acts of physical racist violence are also woven into the plots. Nan is attacked in the Paris metro by skinheads (Coq au Vin). In Penny Mickelbury’s One Must Wait, there is a story about a black girl passing for white on an allwhite campus who got engaged to a white student. Her own brother betrayed her out of loyalty to his fraternity “brother”. As a result, the girl was gangraped for three days and lost her mind. What is most striking about this story is that we see that, again, “black” and “woman” are inseparable since the black is punished as a woman and that men’s loyalty is to men first, whatever the color (although, in this case, it stretches credibility).

35BarbaraNeely often refers to the racist violence of the past, at the time of slavery or from the Ku Klux Klan, especially the rapes of women.

36The butt of racist attacks can be a man, for example Lance Mitchell, a doctor in Inner City Blues. Paula Woods describes and denounces the racism of the police who equals “black” with “criminal”. It is Charlotte and another woman who save Mitchell from the hands of the white male police.

37Many of these forms of violence are highlighted by the fact that the heroine or her client has experienced one of them in a very painful way which has left scars that still affect her today. Also, the murder/violent death of a loved one is a much used device. The characters (usually the main heroines) have to make their peace with it.

Other forms of violence: -2- at the societal level

38The theme of ghetto violence, unsurprisingly, appears in many novels, as these mostly take place in urban settings. Terry McMahan Grimes describes Theresa Galloway’s mother’s neighborhood and her fears. In Eleanor Bland’s fiction, we are told Marti left Chicago to get away from big-city crime (her first husband got killed in drug-related circumstances). Paula Woods deals with gangs and pushers and Grace F. Edwards with drugs.

39Violence breeds violence. In Easier to Kill, poverty leads a young girl to kill her baby, accidentally; poverty again leads a man to beat his wife, then his stepdaughter kills him, and murders follow one another. There seems to be no end as the teenager who killed as a child kills again in similar circumstances.

40Other forms of violence are also present. In Margaret Cuthbert’s The Silent Cradle, women’s and children’s lives are shown as being of little value.

41A man who needs money is prepared to endanger women’s lives in labor to force a competitor to sell his birth center. Doctor Rae Duprey’s mother bled to death in an ambulance. No blame is given for bad health care but the implication is that the poor get poor health service. Inadequate care results in death for the poor, both blacks and whites. Health is money.

42Penny Mickelbury builds her novel One Must Wait on an interesting concept which she calls “environmental racism”: the disposal of waste and byproducts from chemical plants that are so toxic that the land is destroyed forever and the health of people endangered. She writes: “the next great civil rights issue was that the neighborhoods of the poor and people of color were being turned into the toxic waste and garbage dumps of the nation” (138). The fact that the criminal is a black man passing for white might also be symbolically relevant, showing that nothing is to be gained by imitating the greed of white capitalists. In Blanche Cleans up, there is a similar subplot with lead poisoning in buildings that causes various illnesses and, some people think, violent behavior (although Blanche does not think it is true).

Women and law and order

43As targets of sexist and racist violence, women cannot remain in the police very long.

44Many authors write about the distrust blacks feel toward the police, with special reference to the Rodney King case or more generally to police brutality towards blacks. For example, Mali Anderson was fired for hitting another cop who had insulted her and now studies to do social work. She is fighting the NYPD in court. Starletta Duvall was harassed, as a woman, at the beginning of her career. Like Mali Anderson, one day she “snapped” and hit a cop who had gone too far and punched him. Tamara Hayle left the police when her son became the target of racist violence. Leigh Ann Warren in Sunrise is leaving the police because of burnout, because she feels she is getting uncontrollably violent. Charlotte Justice has remained on the force to do justice. Will she stay? It is doubtful.

45The two policewomen who have no problem with the institution are white. Gianna Maglione commands respect as a chief and thus does not seem to suffer from sexist attacks. The police force is her life: she follows after her father. Kelly Wylie (in Tracey Tillis’s Deadly Masquerade) is white and a sergeant in Internal Affairs, not the object of sexism in her job, or, at least, it does not really ruffle her. “To be black and a cop, you’ve got to be pretty weird,” says Nan in Rhode Island Red (18).

46Violence on the heroines is the least interesting form of violence as it is such a traditional fictional device: in the end, the hero/ine has to find her/himself in danger. The final confrontation lasts but a few minutes. The heroine is either rescued by the cavalry or rescues herself with her own gun or thanks to her fighting abilities, she soon gets over it and in the same way as male heroes who repeatedly get beaten on the head and shot at and still go doggedly on.

47Few and far between are the heroines who can really fight (and have to). Patricia Conley (Coleman) has a black belt in aikido and the reader experiences some jubilation when she beats up villains. Even fewer kill: only Starletta Duvall who fights men successfully and even kills the killer in Do not Go Gently and P. I. Tamara Hayle who kills (twice) do so. The other women, if they can fight, also get beaten. As a reaction to violence, they have fits of rage and violence and/or feel physically sick and very sad.

48Theresa Galloway is a good example of mixed feelings: she is frightened by the ambient violence of her mother’s neighborhood but she also gets angry at the noise, the murders and the neglected children to the point of almost killing. She feels a terrible sadness at the wasted lives: women on crack and turning to prostitution to support their addiction, neglected and battered children, teenagers who cheer at the violence. She says: “I was out of my element. Way out. The streets were just too mean for me.” (Somebody Else’s Child, 88)

49As to crime and punishment, the heroines, as in most crime fiction, put an end to (some of) the violence either by putting the guilty person (s) in the hands of the justice system, or having them killed, or killing them themselves, directly or indirectly. Sometimes, there is a departure from this pattern, though.

50BarbaraNeely exercises the most imagination in this domain. In little things she does justice herself: elbowing a black minister who is the owner of dangerous buildings and causing him to splash his coffee, ruining and spraypainting his car, destroying with ammonia an employer’s pictures of naked children, spiking an employer’s food, sending pornographic videos to various groups and people to expose a “family values” politician. She clearly rejoices when a racist sheriff is killed. In Blanche and the Talented Tenth, she punches the man who caused the three deaths. The most interesting is the resolution at the end of Blanche Cleans up. Blanche distrusts the police, to say the least and manages to avoid having to deal with them. But, at the end of this novel, she delegates the resolution to a group of black men (Ex-Cons for Community Safety) and finds out later that they have killed the murderer, so it means that, indirectly, she has killed him, and she feels as burdened with this as if she had pulled the trigger herself. Which only shows that no murder can be satisfactorily resolved and, perhaps, that women cannot trust men to clean up properly for them. She believes girls should be taught self-defense rather than press charges in court.

51Sometimes the author uses her imagination to find a suitable punishment that is not either prison or death. In Slow Burn, Eleanor Bland punishes the pimp who exploited children for pornographic purposes by having him shot and paralyzed for the rest of his life. Another symbolic “punishment” is that of Mandy Magic, in Easier to Kill, a woman who killed her crying baby when she was a teenager living in poverty. As she had extenuating circumstances, her life is saved but she will never be able to speak again, which for a person who has made her fortune with her voice (on a radio show) is a terrible punishment. Other than that, the endings are conventional enough.

52All these crimes paint a bleak picture of society. Order may be restored in a small area but all the rest is going on, hopelessly: drugs, abuse. The world of these novels is a violent one and solving one crime (or a series of crimes) is not going to alter the fact that violence goes on, relentlessly.

53Black women writers (with few exceptions) write about the suffering caused by the various forms of violence. Pain is a recurring word in the heroines’ language and they use all sorts of tactics to avoid it. But rage comes soon after pain: another recurring word. And this is why reading these novels, in spite of their imperfections which are inevitably, it seems, part of the genre, makes such tonic reading.

54It is, in short, a literature of empathy, denunciation, anger and commitment:

Charlotte has become a part of my psyche now, and writing of her adventures in a post-modem paradise is a way of exploring and exorcising the demons and misconceptions that plague us all. (Woods, 1998)


Works Cited

Bland, Eleanor. 1992. Dead Time. New York: Signet Books.

— 1993. Slow Burn. New York: Signet Books.

— 1994. Gone Quiet. New York: Signet Books.

— 1995. Done Wrong. New York: St Martin’s Paperbacks.

— 1996. Keep Still. New York: St Martin’s Paperbacks.

— 1998. See no Evil. New York: St Martin’s Paperbacks.

— 1999. Tell no Tales. New York: St Martin’s Paperbacks.

Carter, Charlotte. 1997. Rhode Island Red. London: Serpent’s Tail.

— 1999. Coq au Vin. New York: Mysterious Press.

Coleman, Evelyn. 1998. What a Woman’s Gotta Do. New York: Dell/Random House.

Cuthbert, Margaret. 1998. The Silent Cradle. New York: Pocket Books/Simon & Schuster.

DeLoach, Nora. 1995. Mama Traps a Killer. Los Angeles: Holloway House.

Edwards, Grace F. 1998. A Toast Before Dying. New York: Bantam Books.

Grimes, Terris McMahan. 1996. Somebody Else’s Child. New York: Onyx.

Hopkins, Pauline E. 1900. “Talma Gordon”. The Colored American Magazine. Reprinted in Paula L. Woods (ed.). 1995. Spooks, Spies, and Private Eyes: Black Mystery, Crime, and Suspense Fiction of the Twentieth Century. New York: Doubleday. 3-18.

— 1901-1902. Hagar’s Daughter. Reprinted in The Magazine Novels of Pauline E. Hopkins, 1988. New York: Oxford University Press.

Mickelbury, Penny. 1998. One Must Wait. New York: St Martin’s.

— 1995. Night Songs. Tallahassee, FL: The Naiad Press.

— 1994. Keeping Secrets. Tallahassee, Fl.: The Naiad Press.

Neely, Barbara. 1992. Blanche on the Lam. New York: Penguin Books.

— 1994. Blanche and the Talented Tenth. New York: Penguin Books.

— 1998. Blanche Cleans up. New York: Penguin Books.

— 2000. Blanche Passes “Go”. New York: Penguin Books.

Saxton, Lisa. 1997. Caught in a Rundown. New York: Scribner’s.

Smith-Levin, Judith. 1996. Do Not Go Gently. New York: HarperCollins.

— 2000. Green Money. New York: Ballantine/Random House.

The Hoodoo Man. New York: Ballantine/Random House.

Thomas-Graham, Pamela. 1998. A Darker Shade of Crimson. New York: Pocket Books.

Tillis, Tracey. 1994. Deadly Masquerade. New York: Dell.

Wesley, Valerie Wilson. 1998. Easier to Kill. New York: Avon Books.

West, Chassie. 1994. Sunrise. New York: HarperCollins.

— 1995. Loss of Innocence. New York: HarperCollins.

Woods, Paula L. 1999. Inner City Blues. New York: Ballantine.


1 A translation of Raymond Depardon’s 1996 film title, Afriques: Comment ça va avec la douleur?, in which it is explained that this is the question Tubu people greeted him with in Chad when they worried about his well-being.

2 “In Search of our Sisters’Mean Streets: The Politics of Sex, Race and Class in Black Women’s Crime Fiction”. Kathleen Gregory KLEIN (ed.). 1999. Diversity and Detective Fiction: Race, Gender, Ethnicity. Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green University Popular Press. 158-185.

3 http://www.ojp.usdoj/bjs/homicide

4 The only ones I can think of are Lisa Saxton’s Caught in a Rundown, BarbaraNeely’s Blanche and the Talented Tenth where we think there are murders when in fact the deaths are only indirectly so, and perhaps Chassie West’s Loss of Innocence.

5 Woods, Paula L. 1998. “The Birth of a Cop.” Mystery Readers Journal 14: 3.

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Teaches English as a foreign language to science students at Toulouse III University. She is the head of a research team concerned with language learning and teaching. She has published extensively in this domain but also in the field of feminist literature and more especially crime fiction.

© Presses universitaires François-Rabelais, 2005

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