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“Polar noir”: Reading African-American Detective Fiction

Alice Mills
Claude Julien

V. African-American detective fiction writers speak

An Interview with Valerie Wilson Wesley1

John Gruesser


This interview covers the Tamara Hayle series, as well as the non-detective fiction Valerie Wilson Wesley is writing.

Texte intégral

  • 1 This interview also appears in F. Gysin & C. S. Hamilton, eds. Complexions of Race. The African Atl (...)

The following interview took place in Valerie Wesley’s home in Montclair, New Jersey, on Wednesday May 7, 2003.

1You were a professional writer long before you started to write detective fiction and you continue to write non-mystery books. Can you talk about the relationship between your Tamara Hayle series and your other novels and other writing projects?

2Thank you for that question. What’s happened is, recently, I’ve developed a couple of different audiences and often the detective fans who like Tamara Hayle, don’t realize I write non-mysteries and the non-mystery people don’t realize I write the mysteries, so it’s always good when I have the two combined. I found that I needed to get out of the series because, although I love writing this character (and as I go back to her now it’s very enjoyable) the writing at some point becomes almost [too confining] because it’s a mystery and they’re almost by definition slightly formulaic: there’s a beginning, a middle, and there’s always at the end the denouement. There’s always the murder. It’s in the first person, so I see the world through Tamara’s eyes and walk in her footsteps. I found that I needed to get out of the series, and I needed to be able to write different characters and from different perspectives — male characters which I really enjoy doing — looking at the world in different ways from the detective. Detective fiction, crime fiction can be kind of a downer after a point, because you’re always writing about murder and in order to get into the characters’heads there’s a certain kind of sorrow in the book, and I wanted something dealing with a different subject, frankly. Ain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do dealt with marriage, and love, and lust, and Always True to You in My Fashion with the world of art and a guy who can’t be faithful to one woman. And the children’s novels, of course — the children’s series — is something that’s about children. I found that I have to do both types of fiction. That’s what really fulfills me. It’s a very interesting thing, and it’s a lot of work, but I do enjoy it. I have to do both. Sometimes readers want to know when the next [mystery’s] coming out. This is why so many writers switch series characters because you have to be able to bring a fresh eye to the character. You have to be able to come up with different plots. If you write them one after the other, one after the other, one after the other, you just find yourself repeating yourself, and you never want to do that. You don’t grow when you just keep writing.

3Why did you decide to write When Death Comes Stealing?

4I really did want to create a different kind of character. It was a character who had not really been seen before. Certainly Barbara Neely and Eleanor Taylor Bland were doing really marvelous detective fiction featuring a black, female character — Walter Mosley with his incredible Easy Rawlins series — but I wanted to create a character who was a very empowered, very smart, savvy professional private detective. And also one that was a single mother because so many women were dealing with bringing up children by themselves. I was executive editor at Essence at that point. I really in so many ways had, as a magazine editor, my fingers on the pulse of what was happening in terms of contemporary black women. And I saw her, this character, as a chance to really talk about what’s happening in our community in terms of black women, in terms of black single mothers, and in terms of the things that women have to deal with. I think at the time that I was writing Tamara — that I began the series — I think the average salary of women was twenty-seven thousand, maybe less than that. I mean it’s not high for women. And if you have a kid and you have the various things that you’re dealing with as a single parent, there’s a lot of expense, a lot of worry, a lot of things. And despite all of that, many women do it splendidly, and I just wanted to show that.

5Did you envision a whole series of Tamara Hayle novels from the start?

6Yes, and I deliberately created characters that could go on in the series. When I sold it, I sold it as a series. Publishers tend to want you to do a series, and that was what I wanted to do. And in many ways I know where she’s going to be in twenty years. What’s interesting in coming back with the series after having written other novels is that I’ve found that every book is a little bit different. She grows in every book. She’s not the same Tamara in The Devil Riding as in When Death Comes Stealing. As I grow as a writer and as a person (I mean I’m ten years older) I bring different things to the book. I bring a different perspective because I’m older and Tamara is as well. In this latest book, because her kid, Jamal, will be going to college in two or three years (I never say exactly) I wanted to deal with the idea of loneliness in dealing with that, and love, and relationships, and how she feels about where her life is at this particular point. And she’s not really sure how she feels, and I wanted to show that, and many women aren’t, in their forties, late forties, or mid-forties. I never really say how old she is exactly because you never want to age your character out. But I’m dealing with, I think, lots of issues that women are dealing with.

7You’ve already touched on this a little bit already, but I want to address this question to you. Most of your books involve multiple or serial murders, even though these occur less often than many people think. Is the pivotal position of murder in the mystery genre at all troubling to you?

8I think —I read something once— that the reality is that it is of course the worst thing, the worst crime, to take another’s life, and it makes it all the more serious. You want a book that involves something serious, something that is worth, in a sense, going after. You could do a heist or something, but money is not murder. Murder means the death of a soul. The things that steer someone in that direction... A person who does such a thing has something so absolutely askew in who they are that it kind of makes for an interesting character. And I think it is the worst and that’s what you want to look at. It makes it worth the time to do it. It’s a matter of justice. Of course many murders aren’t solved. And also that’s one of the reasons I wanted to get out of it —it took too much out of me, particularly Easier to Kill with that violent scene at the end— violent for me, not violent for other writers. I needed to get out, draw out for a while.

9How consciously do you use —and subvert— the conventions of mystery writing, particularly those associated with white, male, tough-guy private eyes?

10I just kind of take it and twist it. The classical thing with the barbershop or the bar—I do the beauty shop. I kind of paid my respects to Sue Grafton with Tamara’s Jetta. Of course her marvelous character Kinsey Milhone drives a Volkswagen Beetle. Tamara will, of course, in the new book, have a new Jetta. Everything. She’s tough in a way, but she’s not that tough. Her one vulnerability in a sense is that she is a parent, and that makes her more conscious of the threat that there is to her because he is an only child, the only one left in her family, basically. Everyone else is dead. He’s her link with the future and with the past. And that’s interesting and important to play with, too. I love John MacDonald. I love Travis McGee. I think that character is a marvelous character. I love that series. That’s one of my favorite series. I love how quickly it’s written, I love the language that’s so fast and fair and “dumph, dumph, dumph,” I love the way, the honorable way he deals with life. And I try to give her those same qualities, as a black, female Travis McGee. Only he’s a little wilder than Tamara; he’s not married, but he certainly has that sense of justice, of making things right. That’s what I try to give her.

11You’ve talked about how you’ve really made an effort to create, and obviously you’ve succeeded in creating, a tough guy —tough girl— black, female private eye. Do you ever feel compelled to gloss certain words or phrases for white readers, or is it up to them to do their own detective work andfigure the meanings out from the context?

12I just kind of write, and I think most folks understand the context. When you write, you just kind of write, and it just comes out, and you hope that folks get it. The books are published in Germany as well, which is interesting, and I think they must do fairly well over there because I get emails from German readers. It’s interesting for them to translate everything into their particular world. For example, in the latest book, The Devil Riding — the book is about runaways — they had a completely different title. If you want me to show you the copies, they’re very different kinds of books, and the titles are always very different from my titles. But I think that people can kind of figure out the context because the reality is there are certain universals that touch all of us, and that’s what you kind of aim for.

13Who are your favorite authors of detective fiction? I saw that when you were younger Agatha Christie was a favorite. You’ve mentioned John MacDonald, you’ve mentioned Sue Grafton.

14Ruth Rendell. P. D. James, certainly; P. D. James is incredible. Ruth Rendell, I love her work. Walter, of course. I think those are the main ones.

15Do you see the mystery genre as being flexible enough to allow a writer to both entertain readers and make meaningful social commentary?

16I think it has to be. That’s what you aim for. That’s why the genre’s important [because] it does go into social things. That’s why people read them. I think it has to be flexible enough, but at the same time you don’t want a book that’s boring because readers aren’t going to read it. You want to give them something, too, and I try to do that with some of Tamara’s observations about life and love and men and reality. And with certain characters like Wyvetta Green, who is, I think, a very interesting character. Everyone knows a Wyvetta Green. She’s just funny. And certainly in terms of black life, some of the characters that you see [are ones] that we know. [In] every ethnic group there are certain people of a type. So those are a few of the humorous things, too, like a couple of, one or two, in-jokes. I can’t think of any right off the bat. But it has to be flexible enough to encompass both things because the best mysteries do that. They are a comment, I think, on life, on what’s happening politically and socially.

17So it’s fair to say that you consider your books to be political?

18Well, in a sense, in a very subtle way, yeah. I mean I don’t beat it over the [head]. Some are much more than others, I think. I think, for example, in No Hiding Place I was trying to really comment on the social —class. I do a lot with class, I think, more so maybe than politics as politics. And certainly with the family. As someone pointed out to me, actually recently—a critic—you know you write about family relationships. [They’re] really what I write about — mothers and daughters, fathers and sons, and mothers and sons. And how the family is the first social unit: when that goes awry, how everything gets tampered with and nothing is right after that. And certainly I think with Easier to Kill I was really writing about, in some ways, abortion and infanticide, I guess. You do look at certain things. Yes, absolutely, because it’s interesting and that’s where it all comes from. If you’re going to commit a murder, very often in a detective novel, it has something to do with other things than just wanting someone dead. Sometimes it doesn’t. But are there other things at work? That’s what I try to hit on.

19I tend to prefer the first book in a mystery series because that’s where the writer really establishes the character, but I also especially like When Death Comes Stealing because the plot turns on Tamara’s role as a mother. How about you, do you have a favorite among the six Tamara Hayle books you’ve published so far?

20I like No Hiding Place. I think that’s a good one. And Easier to Kill, I think, is interesting because it’s dealing with, again, mothers and children, and what happens when that particular thing goes [wrong]— and fathers, too, in a funny kind of way because the father is the one who killed, who did all the murders. I like When Death Comes Stealing. There’s a lot of cursing in When Death Comes Stealing. Wow. But a lot of readers like that because of the tension of the children dying in that one. I think probably those three.

21You’ve chosen to set your mysteries in a real place rather than a fictitious setting; however, instead of a larger and more glamorous city like New York, Washington, Chicago, or Los Angeles, most of your books take place in and around Newark, New Jersey. Why?

22Well, there are a couple of reasons. One, I live near Newark, and it’s easy to get in the car and go over and look at a spot. Richard’s from Newark; my husband’s from Newark. And I love Newark. I love it because it’s tough, and it’s trying to make its way in the world, and there are so many things against it. People always ask, “Why did you set it in Newark of all places?” But it’s a city that’s trying to get itself together. As I said in the first book, “It’s like an old fighter who won’t stay down for the count.” It’s a determined little city. It’s a tough little city. And it’s a port city—people forget it. But it’s something about Newark. It’s a gritty, tough city, but it also has a certain vulnerability and fragility that I like. People who come from Newark are very loyal to Newark. Very loyal. I try to give Tamara that thing and also Jake, of course, who grew up in Newark, and the sense of love for the city. That’s why I chose the city.

23You’ve already touched on this, so maybe this next question will take us a little bit further. Until very recently, the city had been in decline, since before World War II –with white flight, a shrinking tax base, inadequate and substandard housing, a high crime rate –and of course there were the devastating effects of the 1967 riots, which you mention in nearly every book in the series. Yet you describe Newark as a “survivor city.” Why is this?

24Well, I think it’s because it always depends upon the people who live there, who have a sense of optimism. I think NJPAC [The New Jersey Performing Arts Center] has certainly made a difference, and I mention that in Easier to Kill —no in No Hiding Place. And also neighborhoods that are holding on. I look at that a lot in No Hiding Place. The sense that there are certain places where they do hold on, they do maintain roots, and they are determined that they’re not going to be chased out. But also there’s a certain exploitation sometimes in the city, too. I mean people will take advantage of it. That goes for any city, I guess. A certain level of corruption. It’s a very corrupt little city. Not as bad as [some], but every small city is corrupt. You think about what’s happening now with Bridgeport, Connecticut, with the mayor. But I don’t think Sharpe James is that bad. I know he’s not that bad. It’s a manageable city. I think NJPAC is giving it a sense of rebirth. I’m on the Newark Arts Council, and we’re trying to do things with building an art space in the city. There’s a surprising number of young artists who live in Newark because they can’t afford New York—visual artists who are trying to make the city into something. Small things are happening in the city, and I think there is a sense of it coming back. In a different mold than it was maybe fifty years ago, but still coming back. Property rates are back up in Newark. They’re climbing. So it’s slowly, I think, beginning to reinvest in itself, and that’s interesting.

25How consciously have you linked Tamara, a survivor herself, to her hometown?

26Well, I think I’m going to do it more. The question is a good one. I think she identifies with the city because of that, and I think in the new book I mention it a little bit. It hasn’t been that conscious, really, but as the series grows and I grow I think I’m going to be doing it more. Sometimes you write and you don’t know why you do stuff, which is very odd. You’ll write it down and then someone will say, “You know you’ve done this in this book and you’ve done that,” and you say, “Wow, that’s interesting.” I guess writing is very subconscious in a funny kind of way. You just write and you don’t know what you’re doing, but you’re right: she is like the city. Perhaps I did say it in one book, but I don’t remember it.

27People from elsewhere in Essex County and beyond, as you were saying, may associate Newark with corruption, also crime, and poverty. However, at least for Tamara, the city often stands for the opposite —family, tradition, and moral clarity— while rich mostly white suburbs like the fictitious Belvington Heights, where your protagonist worked for five years as a cop, are fraught with dangers, particularly for African Americans. Is Belvington Heights based on a real place?

28Not really, except I guess you could say it’s similar —the cops— to Montclair. There’s always a certain tension. Not so much now. Certainly ten years ago, even in Montclair. My husband, for example, was sitting outside the house and the cops—this was years ago—the cops thought he was trying to rob the house. It was horrible. They made him come in. It was horrible. Anyway, that’s always a threat when you’re a black person in a predominantly white neighborhood or a neighborhood that’s seen as an upscale neighborhood. And Belvington Heights is much richer than Montclair. It’s more like, I guess, Short Hills, more exclusive than Montclair. And it’s true, there is a threat to black people many times. You’re just walking down the street, and they think you’re robbing something. And, for example, in Devil’s Gonna Get Him when the chef moves his restaurant from Newark to Belvington Heights, that’s a statement that I wanted to make about people moving the business out of a place like Newark, which it really is benefiting, into Belvington Heights. When Tanya gets it, she moves it back to Newark. So it becomes a symbol of affluence that people aspire to but often aren’t included in. That’s what Belvington Heights is. A lot of bad stuff happens in Belvington Heights. You’re right. Poor Belvington Heights.

29The third book in the series, Where Evil Sleeps, took Tamara to Jamaica, and The Devil Riding, was set mainly in Atlantic City. Will the next book be set in Newark?

30Yeah. Probably from now on I’m going to be setting them in Newark. There’s not the need as much, since I’m writing other books, to set it in different settings. I can focus now on Newark. Yeah, they’re probably going to all be set in Newark. I wanted to look at a different thing. Atlantic City—I wanted to bring Basil Dupre back and not bring him back in Newark. They’ll probably be set in Newark.

31What were your impressions of the recent Newark mayoral contest between four-time incumbent Sharpe James and the up-and-coming Cory Booker?

32That’s an interesting question because I think it’s something I might like to use in a book at some point: old Newark vs. new Newark, the political [types] vs. the middle class... There are a lot of things happening in Newark. I don’t try to do it in this book, but I think at some point I’d like to. I thought it was an interesting race. Although Cory Booker was an interesting candidate, he didn’t have quite the base. I think he would have done some very good things for Newark. But unfortunately most of his supporters—most of the money supporting him—didn’t come from Newark. And that’s not a good thing when a candidate is running and no one from Newark supports [him]. He’s seen—but he may not be—as an agent for change that doesn’t exist in Newark. What’s the guy’s name? Will, I forget his first name—terribly conservative guy—George Will came out with a column for him. What a way to block a young black politician’s life. George Will, who is like the worst conservative you ever want to see, and has said horrible things about people, black people in Newark. I mean who wants him in his camp? So that kind of thing, I think, undermined his campaign. I had to look twice when George Will was supporting him. Then again a lot of people supported him whom I respect, but they didn’t live in Newark. They all lived in Montclair. So, again, it’s like what’s going on here? I don’t know, I don’t know what to think about it. It was an interesting campaign, I thought.

33You’ve indicated that you’re optimistic about what lies ahead for Newark. Is Jamal in any way intended to be symbolic of the future of the city?

34I think he could be. I think absolutely. He’s on his way to college at some point. And I think if the series goes on and on and on, at some point he may work with his mother, in some kind of a different capacity, which would be interesting. A different type of relationship. That will be so many books down the line. Yeah, I think so, but he’s also—and I also deal with this—the older he gets the more he’s threatened by growing up a young, black male in Newark, because there’s death. I mean you can walk down the street and someone can shoot you. There’s gangs. Gangs are coming back. They’ve always been there, but gangs are back. I think the Bloods and the Crips are back. There’s always an element of danger. That’s true in every city. A mother raising a son has to be aware of that. And it’s very scary that your child could be threatened. Yeah, but I think in some ways he is the hope, as children always are.

35You yourself have two daughters. Why did you choose to give Tamara a son?

36I don’t think I was really ready to write about mothers and daughters yet. It’s a different kind of relationship, but now my daughters are grown. And I’m actually going to do mothers and daughters in other books. I did mothers and daughters a little bit in Ain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do. I think she may adopt a daughter when Jamal goes away to school. And that will give me a chance to look at not only mothers and daughters but adopting a child and bringing up a child. And a child who is a troubled child, and a daughter. And I think that would be an interesting thing to really explore because that’s a far different parenting experience and a very important one. And again many single women do adopt children. And I also in this next book am going to bring a more permanent relationship in, but he won’t stay around for more than one or two books. I want to do something with her idea of aging, and wanting to settle down with a man again, and a little bit on marriage. But she may or may not marry. I don’t know. But again it’s looking at it and then leaving it so she’s back where she was. These are all new things that I’m toying with for this next book.

37What’s distinctive about Tamara is that she is a private investigator and a mother, a single mother. Yet she’s very sexual, too, although in no way is she casual about sex despite her strong attraction for Basil. Can you comment on this?

38I think people like reading about relationships, and it is an important part of people’s lives. I mean, single women have boyfriends, and Tamara does, too. I wanted to make her a whole woman, not just a mother, not just a businesswoman, not just a P.I., but a total person. And I wanted to talk about that aspect of women’s lives—men. So that was the reason. I didn’t want her to be kind of an asexual, nonsexual [character]. She’s a woman, an attractive woman, who’s also concerned about looks and growing older and age and gaining weight and stuff that concerns women.

39And men.

40And men. And that’s part of being human, and I wanted to give her that human dimension.

41Although set in the North, ancestral Southern roots and values figure prominently in your books through Tamara’s grandmother, a baker from down South who raised Tamara more than her mother did and whose folk wisdom the detective often draws upon for strength and guidance. Can you talk about this woman’s importance to Tamara?

42Well, I think that her grandmother, again, is someone who does bring a sense of continuity with the South. Black communities have roots in the South. I mean, you came from somewhere, and it’s the South. In terms of immigrant people from different countries coming to Newark, it’s a town of immigrants, a city of immigrants. People from the South came to Newark. And I wanted to talk about that aspect of black culture and black family life. And her grandmother did rear her because her mother was abusive in many ways, and her father was kind of a drunk, and her family was just kind of scrambled. But the grandmother was the main root of her life. The mainstay.

43Tamara was the person who found her brother Johnny’s body and his death caused her to enter into a bad marriage at a young age and later to go into law enforcement. Does she know why he committed suicide and will this story ever appear in one of your novels?

44I don’t know because the reality is you never know why someone commits suicide. Not really. If they’re depressed (I may talk about depression at some point) you never really know. It’s such an awful legacy because there’s a mystery to it. And that question I’ve been asked a lot by readers. Also a lot of readers have told me that they’re happy that I talk about it. This one woman in particular (I got a very moving letter) her brother also committed suicide. She was grateful to me for writing about it because she sees that Tamara has gotten through it so she knows that she will, which always makes you feel good as a writer. I’m not sure why he committed suicide myself. But I think at some point I may look into it more, but probably more [in terms of] depression and deal with it as that. But that’s a ways down the line as well—one of the mysteries of Tamara’s life.

45Will we ever learn more about Tamara’s abusive mother about whom she harbors extremely mixed feelings?

46Probably when I explore mothers more. It could be when I bring in that daughter; maybe I’ll explore more about it then. I don’t know. Probably. If it works into the story’s line, yeah. When you develop a character like that, there’s always something you want to look at in terms of the story itself, and that’s when you bring in the information that made the character who she is. So at some point I might look at it more.

47Let me just add a question here about your writing process. You’re clearly planning books ahead in terms of things you want to do. How about with an individual book? Do you really plot the thing out very carefully?

48Absolutely. Yeah. I find that with mysteries I have to because there’s a certain rhythm to them and I have to have a sense that something’s going to happen in a chapter. I have to have clues and I have to know when a character reveals something. So they’re plotted out in much more detail than the other novels, which also have an outline, a broader outline. But I really have to be much more exact so I know when clues are going to happen, I know when a piece of information is revealed, because it falls into the way she solves the crime. A lot of writers say, “I don’t use an outline” —mystery writers. But I absolutely have to with mysteries because they’re very plotted. Mysteries—this particular genre—they’re plot-based in many ways. I hope mine are also character-based. But they’re much more so than regular novels. They’re plot based: boom, boom, boom, boom, boom. And they have to make sense at the end. I do outline.

49What’s next for Tamara and for Jamal, who must be nearly eighteen by now?

50Well, in the book I’m working on right now, as I said, she’s beginning to think in terms of college —he is. She’s beginning to think in terms of being alone in the house —kind of empty nest syndrome. She’s beginning to understand that her life is in transition and that brings with it some sense of sorrow but also of being free. But at the same time as I grow older there are other questions that confront me in my life that I will probably bring to the series in some way. For me writing the series is fun because of that, but, like I said, I have to come out of it every now and then. Otherwise, it just gets, ahhhh!, tedious. She will, certainly, be back. Actually, the other books have outsold the series because mystery fans aren’t as large a base as other readers. And I’ve had to, actually, go to a different publishing house because my main publisher really wanted me to focus on just writing non-mysteries. But I found that there was such a hue and cry among readers —“When’s the next one coming out?”—that I really did decide to write another Tamara Hayle, and I am doing that now, and then I’ll do the next novel. I was surprised when I heard that because I always assumed that Tamara Hayles were selling, but, as someone observed, many people take it from the library or trade them back and forth because the other books definitely outsell them in terms of just bulk sales. Mystery’s a niche market. It’s considered a niche market unless you’re making the best seller list, unless you’ve broken up and broken over and gone into big [time] like some of the other mystery writers. I haven’t done that. I think my readership is primarily smaller. But who knows with the next book.

51And the last question is: what’s next for Valerie Wilson Wesley?

  • 2 Valerie Wesley’s seventh Tamara Hayle novel, Dying in the Dark, appeared in 2004. She is currently (...)

52Well, I am working on a new Tamara Hayle.2 I have a new series—children’s series—called Willimena Rules. Because I happen to have it here, I’ll show you the galley. And I’m working on a new stand alone novel, which I’m very excited about, about mothers and daughters, and infidelity, and murder. It’s not a Tamara Hayle, but it’s definitely, I think, a very interesting study. And this new novel I’ll be working on after I finish this Tamara Hayle is actually the first time I’m really going to be writing about mothers and daughters—and I’m looking forward to getting into that book—I haven’t for some reason. My mother was not abusive. She was a lovely woman. She would be appalled at all these awful women—mothers—running through my books. I think because my own daughters are grown and the whole relationship is becoming much more in focus for me—so I’m very excited about writing that new book. But also the new Tamara Hayle, which I think readers are going to enjoy.


1 This interview also appears in F. Gysin & C. S. Hamilton, eds. Complexions of Race. The African Atlantic. Hamburg: Lit. Verlag, 2005.

2 Valerie Wesley’s seventh Tamara Hayle novel, Dying in the Dark, appeared in 2004. She is currently at work on the eighth novel in the series, which will feature the return of the character Lilah Love.


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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