The Unacknowledged: Black Crime Fiction, the Roaring ’20s to the 1930s




THE LATE 1920s into the 1930s were a protean time for crime fiction. Among the books that were written were Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest (1929), the plot basis for the films Yojimbo and A Fistful of Dollars, and his template for the private-eye novel, The Maltese Falcon (first serialized in 1929 in the pages of Black Mask pulp magazine). Black Mask also spawned the five stories that became Paul Cain’s Fast One, one hell of a twisty, tough nihilistic story set in 1932-’33 Los Angeles. 1934 kicked off with Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express and saw James M. Cain’s novella The Postman Always Rings Twice on the shelves. The decade wound down with Raymond Chandler’s seminal hard-boiled detective novel, The Big Sleep, and there were countless private eyes (Carrie Cashin, “attractive as sin, hardboiled as hell,” from the pages of Crime Busters), G-men and women, cops, and masked crime fighters (like the Black Bat and the Spider) populating the pages of the other pulps.

But none of these stories were written by or about African Americans, and few featured a person of color as the lead character. If those folks were present, they were minor characters: the maid, the train porter, and so on, often speaking in stereotypical dialogue. In the case of Asian characters, they might be the exotic, the Chinatown femme fatale, or the “yellow peril” villain in the Fu Manchu mold, characters like Wu Fang and Dr. Yen Sin.

Charlie Chan was created by white man Earl Derr Biggers in the 1920s and played throughout the 1920s and ’30s in films by white actors in “yellow face” — though his grown sons were played by Asian Americans. Turns out Chan was inspired by a real Honolulu police detective of Chinese extraction, Chang Apana. His life is chronicled in the Edgar Award–winning Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and His Rendezvous with American History, by Yunte Huang.

In terms of black writers of crime fiction during this period, there appear to be few, with two notable exceptions. One was Dr. Rudolph Fisher and his novel The Conjure-Man Dies: A Mystery Tale of Dark Harlem, published in 1932. Much has been written about this novel, which features a Sherlock Holmes–like Dr. John Archer and police detective Perry Dart — two black investigators out to solve a murder mystery. Not exactly noir and veering too often into inane dialogue, the novel nonetheless stands as a point of demarcation in crime fiction history. He did go on to publish a short story, “John Archer’s Nose,” in 1935. Unfortunately, Fisher died young, of cancer; otherwise he may have well gone on to pen even more adventures of Archer and Dart.

Then there was Hughes Allison. He is credited in 1948 as the first black writer to have a story published in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. The story was titled “Corollary,” appeared in the July issue, and featured black police detective Joe Hill (based in part, like Charlie Chan, on a real-life cop — in this case, one Carlton B. Norris, a Newark police detective). Back in the 1930s, however, Allison had a play mounted by the Federal Theater Project (which, in 1936, also mounted a theatrical adaptation of The Conjure-Man Dies). The play was titled The Trial of Dr. Beck, wherein a mixed-race black man is accused of killing his dark-skinned, wealthy wife, who manufactured “hair relaxers” for black woman. The play was not so much a legal procedural as about the antagonisms among black folk around skin tones, with the murder trial as a springboard for the theme.

According to an entry about him in Frankie Bailey’s Out of the Woodpile: Black Characters in Crime and Detective Fiction, Allison had ghostwritten novels, and in the Historical Dictionary of African American Theater, by Anthony D. Hill and Douglas Q. Barnett, the listing for Allison states that he was reputed to have written over 2,000 radio scripts. Was some of that output in the crime fiction arena? There seems to be no sure answer. Allison’s work was varied; for instance, he co-wrote, with radio producer William J. Rapp, a fictionalized biography of Cab Calloway. Sarah Weinman, in her article for The New Republic, “The Case of the Disappearing Black Detective Novel,” states that Allison had also been a reporter in the 1930s for the so-called confessional pulp True Story. Considering the salacious nature of such fare, maybe “fiction writer” would have been a more accurate description.

But it’s in retro works where more African Americans populate that halcyon period of crime fiction. In the last decade, for instance, Persia Walker has written three mystery novels set during the heyday of the Harlem Renaissance. Walker deftly mixes issues of race and class, along with actual incidents and figures, in her handling of that period. For instance, in Harlem Redux, we meet Madam C. J. Walker (a relative?), the real-life millionaire who made her money in black hair care products and inspired Allison’s character in his play.

In Defender of the Angels: A Black Policeman in Old Los Angeles by Jesse Kimbrough, the reader gets a glimpse of a city in the 1920s and ’30s that is rarely depicted from a black point of view. Defender, first published by Macmillan in 1969, is told in the first person by the main character, Strite Hinton — like the author, a World War I veteran. The novel is a thinly disguised autobiography: the story of one of the first black policemen on the Los Angeles Police Department. Kimbrough joined the LAPD in 1915 as a reserve officer and achieved full status a year later — in a department notorious for its lack of racial sensitivity. If the video-taped beating of Rodney King in 1991 was any indication, imagine how that graft-ridden department handled people of color in the highly segregated early decades of that century. This terse exchange gives a sense of that time:

“Well work it your way. You sure as hell know more about your people than I ever will.”
I was tempted to tell him that I belonged to a breed as unpredictable as any white.

Given that on the horizon is a scripted series called The Black 22s, produced by David Oyelowo (who wil also star), purchased by the National Geographic channel, and billed as a black Untouchables about an all-black police squad in Prohibition-era St. Louis, surely some adventurous producer might look to Defender of the Angels as rich material worth portraying on the small screen. From new pulp publisher Pro Se Press, and also set in the 1920s, is Alvin Grimes’s 2014 hard-boiled novel, Black Pearl, about a World War I vet Harlem Hellfighter called Jackson Blaze. Blaze gets mixed up in a gang war between the Jewish Mafia and boss Jimmy Rose for control of the rackets in Harlem.

Debuting in the late 1990s and spanning the Prohibition era to the 1940s, the crime fiction novels of Robert Skinner feature Wesley Farrell, a mixed-race nightclub owner who passes for white. His works are not as well known as they should be. Reviewer Jean Porath, on MysteryNet.com, said of Skinner’s Daddy’s Gone A-Hunting, which takes place in 1938:

He plays each character’s riff for three, four, five pages at a time. The pace meanders, is tentative. Where will the notes lead? Skinner teases the audience. Characters make impromptu decisions, improvise, fascinate. Skinner seduces his audience into subliminal swaying to a subtle rhythm. It’s steady, sultry, and progressive […] With every scene, Skinner writes characters’ lives and the atmosphere of 1930s New Orleans in clear, sharp, often haunting, sometimes plaintive tones.

More recently, another new pulp publisher, Airship 27 (full disclosure, this writer has done work for both new pulp presses), has brought out two books featuring African Americans set in the 1930s. In Rutherford Jones in Trouble Times Three, written by Robert Ricci and featuring three short stories, the time is 1937 and the place is Oakland. A mousy white guy supposedly runs the Ford Jones Detective Agency — but he’s a front to assuage white clients, and his supposed black assistant Rufus is the real hard-case private investigator.

In Damballa by Charles R. Saunders, it’s 1938. Mirroring the second bout between black heavyweight Joe Louis and the German champ Max Schmeling, pugilists Jackhammer Jackson and Wolfgang Krieger prepare for a title fight in New York City. Only, the Nazis have a twist in mind. In another twist straight out of the classic pulp hero’s repertoire, the mysterious Damballa must, at one point, disguise himself as a white man to gain entry to a particular venue (many, like the Spider or the Shadow, were masters of disguise). Another recent pulp hero is Arron Day, a.k.a. Blackjack, a globe-trotting African-American soldier of fortune whose tales have been told in comic books, graphic novels, and even a radio play, who was created by Alex Simmons.

Hopefully, the work of more crime writers of color from the 1920s and ’30s will be uncovered. Today, the genre allows writers to place their stories and characters of all persuasions in a variety of eras. The breadth of crime fiction gives all of us entry to any venue we desire — to retroactively acknowledge the unacknowledged.

¤

Gary Phillips has authored more than a dozen crime and mystery novels, including 3 the Hard Way, a compilation of some of his hard-boiled pulpy characters.


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