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“Polar noir”: Reading African-American Detective Fiction

Alice Mills
Claude Julien

Résumés par ordre de publication. Summaries as they appear in the volume

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1Stephen Soitos: Surveying theGenre

2This essay aims to outline the evolution of Afro-American detective fiction by looking at a few pivotal moments. The founders of the genre who wrote immediately introduced “detectives” that were close to Afro-American, even African grass roots... Although he did not bring Harlem into black detective fiction (Fisher did that), Himes can be considered as the founder of the modern black genre. Many in this prolific field have followed his lead that interestingly came into being at the request of Marcel Duhamel, the director of the Gallimard “Série Noire”.

3Mary Condé: “The almost bitter murmur” in Rudolph Fisher’s The Conjure Man Dies

4Rudolph Fisher, in The Conjure Man Dies (1932), does not treat the traditional African American motif of passing, although he does treat disguise. Very unusually for a text of this period, he manages to integrate a highly developed degree of African American consciousness into a very accomplished detective story.

5Yves Bonnemère: Ishmael Reed’s Use of Detective Novel Prototypes

6Ishmael Reed uses detective novel prototypes to debunk white men’s “superiority”. Gang warfare depicts an age-old worldwide fight between polytheism and monotheism. Based on the founding myth of ancient Egypt, white men are portrayed as the heirs of Seth, an animal-like god, whereas black men resemble Osiris, Seth’s brother, the anthropomorphic god. Reversing the stereotypes attached to Ham’s sons, Reed turns white men into the members of an accursed family, forever doomed to depravity and perversity.

7Françoise Clary: Dismantling the Detective Story: Chester Himes’s Ideological Stand in A Case of Rape

8In A Case of Rape, Chester Himes uses the crime story pattern to investigate human personality. Employing the logico-temporal gap as a key device in the production of suspense, Himes explores the springs of crime. But there is more to the novel than suspense: also shown is the violence that simmers behind the bland faces of people present to the world. The aim of this paper is to examine the African-American novelist’s two dimensional mode of perception, an ontological way to stand apart from conventional categories in a detective story that takes color from its social environment while imparting it a further layer of meaning.

9Norlisha F. Crawford: The South as a Literary Space in Hard-Boiled African-American Detective Fiction: Challenging Images that Persist and Matter in U.S. Culture

10Southern African Americans have had a profound influence on national cultural in the United States. And yet, they remain among the most disparaged of all citizens. Chester Himes chose to create the backgrounds of many of his most ambitious Harlem characters in the American South. Himes creates transplanted Southern black characters that are dynamic, creative, master manipulators of their circumstances—thereby challenging stereotypical perceptions.

11Anne-Marie Paquet-Deyris: “Boys and Girls in the Neighborhood”: A Rage in Harlem — Chester Himes, 1957 / Bill Duke, 1991

12Chester Himes’s novel A Rage in Harlem, published in 1957 in the U. S. as For Love of Imabelle, was adapted in 1991 by Black actor Bill Duke. As he said in some interviews, it was a true challenge to work on one of Himes’s books because of his love of meticulously described characters, his extremely compact writing and his style hovering between intense emotion and swift humor. The film may not be a first-rate one but its selection of flamboyant characters and of specific sections of the plot, as well as its parody of the western genre and reminiscences of Broadway musicals somehow modify the canon of the detective film.

13Dominique Chance: Solibo Magnifique: dans la mangrove policière

14Le roman de Patrick Chamoiseau, Solibo Magnifique, dépasse les clivages postcoloniaux entre un petit peuple opprimé et une police terrifiante. Il nous entraîne dans une « mangrove policière », un milieu hybride et contradictoire, aussi bien d’un point de vue linguistique qu’idéologique. La « créolité » élabore ses symboles dans un récit qui transgresse les limites morales et politiques pour dépeindre une société mosaïque, populaire et vivante.

15Claude Julien: Gunner Country: Gar Anthony Haywood’s Fictional World

16During the round table discussion held at Tours in 2001, Gar Haywood pointed out he began writing with the intent to portray the Los Angeles that was never shown in white detective fictions, to take his stories away from glamorous places into the squalor of South Central. The essay proposes to look at that locale, Gunner’s existential cityscape. The picture does evolve over time, as the tone of voice sheds its early gallows humor to become more sedate. You Can Die Trying may be the pivotal work in this respect. Still, overall, the series portrays a disjointed world under the reign of absurdity and violence.

17John C. Gruesser: Valerie Wesley’s Tamara Hayle and Newark’s Past, Present and Future

18The 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.

19Françoise Décuré: “HOW Are You Doing with Your Pain?” Violence in Black Women’s Crime Fiction

20Black 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.

21Alice Mills: Easy Rawlins and Blanche White: the Limits of Critical Models

22This paper examines different aspects of Walter Mosley and BarbaraNeely’s writings whose complexity sometimes has difficulty fitting into the mold of literary theories on black detective fiction. It argues that the layer of ambivalence in Mosley and Neely’s novels on issues of blackness, gender and social class may appear negative from an ideological point of view, but that this very ambivalence is what makes the characters true literary figures and not merely one-dimensional ideological vehicles.

23Alison D. Goeller: Identity Politics: the Private Eye/I in Walter Mosley’s Detective Fiction

24Mosley’s Easy Rawlins series follows the hard-boiled tradition but also shares with much ethnic fiction strategies for exposing social and economic disparities in the U. S. Crime thus becomes a metaphor for all that is wrong in America, a vehicle for critiquing injustice based on racial discrimination.

25Moreover, Mosley’s reluctant sleuth is also engaged in a more important mystery: who he is and where he wants to be in a society that does not value him, a society that makes black men invisible second class citizens. Easy’s personal identity, constantly negotiated and challenged, is the biggest mystery of all, and cracking that mystery becomes the most intriguing aspect of the series. As Roger Berger has argued, Mosley himself is highly ambivalent about his identity as a writer of hard-boiled fiction.

26Daniel Peltzman: Of Race and the Witch Hunt in Walter Mosley’s A Red Death

27The Easy Rawlins series covers three decades of from the late 1940s to the mid-1960s. A Red Death is perhaps the most political of all as it focuses on the effects of the McCarthy witch hunt. The essay argues that the period’s deleterious atmosphere ruined solidarity among the oppressed, while black political activists advocating an exodus from the US were fighting the wrong fight. The unmentioned stirrings of the civil rights campaign suggests that black political apathy was strong.

28Gérard Deléchelle: “It’s always a little piece oflanguage that sets off a novel”: a Linguistic Analysis of the Opening of Walter Mosley’s White Butterfly

29A linear linguitic analysis of the opening chapter of White Butterfly shows how the atmosphere of the novel is gradually created with the presentation of the reluctant Easy Rawlins and his relationships with the police (black and white). The study of this short chapter also reveals some of the characteristics of Mosley’s writing.

30Paula L. Woods, BarbaraNeely and Gar A. Haywood: The Tours Symposium Round Table

31The three novelists present their development as writers and the aims they pursue. They answer questions from the floor.

32John C. Gruesser: An Interview with Valerie Wilson Wesley

33This interview covers the Tamara Hayle series, as well as the non-detective fiction Valerie Wilson Wesley is writing.

© Presses universitaires François-Rabelais, 2005

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