Friday, December 02, 2011

Celebrating Mysteries: African-American Historical Series

For the month of December, I thought I would use Kwanzaa, the week-long holiday that celebrates African culture and traditions, as my inspiration to spotlight mystery series that feature African-American characters. As usual, narrowing down the series has proved to be difficult as well as enlightening.

This week, I have chosen three excellent historical series. I've read all three authors and highly recommend their books. Let's get started!

Barbara Hambly

Barbara Hambly grew up in southern California, although her studies did take her to New South Wales, Australia, and Bordeaux, France. She searched for jobs that would allow her to write: a high-school teacher, a model, a waitress, a technical editor, a professional graduate student, an all-night clerk at a liquor store, and a karate instructor. In 1982 her first fantasy novel was published, and she then proceeded to branch out into historical fiction and historical mysteries.

Her mystery series featuring Benjamin January, a surgeon and music teacher in 1830s New Orleans, Louisiana, is excellent. There are currently eleven books in the series with the first three being A Free Man of Color (1997), Fever Season (1998), and Graveyard Dust (1999).

Here's what Amazon had to say about A Free Man of Color:

In Barbara Hambly's rich and poignant thriller, it's 1833 and Ben January--a man of mixed blood making his living as a musician because he's not allowed to practice surgery--is back home in New Orleans after years of freedom in Paris. Trying to walk a caste line more complicated than India's, January risks his precarious position to investigate the killing of a young woman who--like his own younger, lighter half-sister--is the mistress of a wealthy white man. What has changed most in New Orleans while Ben was away is the influence of the white Americans: rough, ignorant, instinctively racist. Only one of these--a policeman named Abishag Shaw--seems to understand that January is at least as smart and valuable as he is, and even he at times appears to be ready to side with the white majority and pin the crime on Ben.

Ann McMillan
Ann McMillan was born in Columbus, Georgia, and grew up there during one of those periods of nostalgia for the Old South. Consequently, she refused to be interested in anything having to do with the Civil War.

In the early 1980s, Ann arrived in Richmond, Virginia, where it seemed the Confederacy lingered even more palpably than in Georgia. Another decade passed before, having decided to write a mystery involving medical history, she turned reluctantly to the Civil War as a treasure trove for researchers on that subject.

She has written a series of four mysteries set in the Richmond area during the Civil War. They feature Narcissa Power, a young widow, and Judah Daniel, a freedwoman and herbalist. The four books are: Dead March (1998), Angel Trumpet (1999), Civil Blood (2001), and Chickahominy Fever (2003). 

Publishers Weekly liked Dead March as much as I did:

There is much to like and admire in this Civil War mystery debut. In Richmond, Virginia, in 1861, the coming conflict over secession seems inevitable. Narcissa Powers, whose son died soon after his birth and whose husband succumbed to consumption not long after that, is called from her nearby home to Richmond, where her brother, Charles, is a medical student. She arrives just in time to attend his deathbed and hear some fevered words about "resurrection." A half-burned letter stuck in her Bible provides clues that Charley's death may not have been an accident. Her suspicions gradually fall on his medical teachers and on the practice of "resurrecting" recently buried corpses for medical students to use as cadavers. The sense of social isolation and legal inferiority enforced on women and blacks is forcefully captured as Narcissa circumspectly probes for the truth. Charley's death also troubles a black man whose friend, Judah Daniel, a freed black woman who is a healer and "conjure woman," joins Narcissa in their quiet investigation. This highly auspicious debut is marked by McMillan's dexterous weaving of historical detail into a first-rate mystery plot and by her penetrating analysis of the era's Southern culture. Narcissa's reflections on and dealings with the limitations of gender and race imposed in her milieu are measured, credible and promising for further richly characterized tales in this series.

Walter Mosley
Walter Mosley is one of the most versatile and admired writers in America today. He is the author of more than 34 critically acclaimed books which have been translated into 23 languages and includes literary fiction, science fiction, political monographs, and a young adult novel. His short fiction has been widely published, and his nonfiction has appeared in The New York Times Magazine and The Nation, among other publications. I have yet to read a Walter Mosley book that I have not liked. In fact, I'm a bit in awe of his talent.

Mosley may be best known for his mystery series featuring Easy Rawlins, a black World War II veteran, unlicensed private detective, and real estate investor whose story begins in late 1940s Los Angeles, California. There are currently eleven books in the series, with the first three being Devil in a Blue Dress (1990), A Red Death (1991), and White Butterfly (1992).

Amazon had this to say about Devil in a Blue Dress:

Walter Mosley's Easy Rawlins has few illusions about the world--at least not about the world of a young black veteran in the late 1940s in Southern California. His stint in the Army didn't do anything to dissuade him from his belief that justice doesn't come cheap, especially for men like him. "I thought there might be some justice for a black man if he had money to grease it," Easy says. Fired from his job on the line at an aircraft plant, he's in danger of losing his home, symbol of his tenuous hold on middle class status. That's a good enough reason to accept a white man's offer to pay him for finding a beautiful, mysterious Frenchwoman named Daphne Monet, last seen in the company of a well-known gangster. Easy's search takes the reader to an L.A. few writers have shown us before--the mean streets of South Central, the after-hours joints in dirty basement clubs, the cheap hotels and furnished rooms, the places people go when they don't want to be found. Evocative of a past time, and told in a style that's reminiscent of Hammet and Chandler, yet uniquely his own, Mosley's depiction of an inherently decent man in a violent world of intrigue and corruption rang up big sales when it was published in 1990. The minor characters are deftly and brilliantly developed, especially Mouse, who saves Easy's life even as he draws him deeper into the mystery of Daphne Monet.

If you haven't read any of these books, I sincerely hope you'll give at least one of them a try. Each author took me out of my own safe little world and made me feel what it was like to be black in a land ruled by whites.

If you have read any of these series, let me know what you thought of them... and if you have your own personal favorites that I did not mention.

Don't forget to join me next weekend when Celebrating Mysteries will continue this Kwanzaa theme!


  1. Cathy - Oh, I'm so glad you included the Easy Rawlins series! What a wonderful series and what a well-written look at a time and place. Mosley's a terrific author. Folks, if you haven't tried this series, please do!

  2. Walter Mosley is one of my favorite writers, and Devil in a Blue Dress is one of his best. Thanks.

    The other two look interesting too. I've ordered a sample of the one available on Nook, and put the other on my "look around for" list.

  3. I've read Mosely and find his books amazing. Thanks for telling us about Anne.

  4. Margot-- His books are amazing, aren't they?

    Joe-- I hope you enjoy them both.

    Harvee-- You're welcome. I hope you give one of her books a try!

  5. These all look great! Thanks for pointing them out, Cathy.

  6. Debbie-- You're very welcome!


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