Ethnic American Mystery Fiction Analysis


(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Ethnicity as a literary trope has been prevalent since nineteenth century colonialism stimulated images of Native American and African savagery and European social prejudices resulted in stereotyped images of African Americans and Jews. However, the American literary employment of ethnic characters and issues has been largely a response to a home-grown issue, the resistance to and later accommodation of alien-seeming peoples entering the American ethnic mix.

The classification of fictional African American, Asian American, Native American, Hispanic, and Jewish characters as “ethnic” can often be misleading. Many of these characters are thoroughly American in every way, although as members of recognizable minorities they see themselves as set apart. A Nisei investigator or a Native American sleuth might be presumed to reflect alien cultural influences, including the speaking of a non-English language, adherence to a non-Western religion, and a value structure and way of thinking. It is the degree of cultural difference that drives the best of the ethnic mystery stories, those that depict other cultures accurately and use them as more than simple exotic backdrops.

Because African Americans are more thoroughly Westernized Americans than members of some of the other ethnic groups, stories about them tend to draw less on dramatic cultural differences and more on variations of social roles and distinctive minority perspectives. The novels of...

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Early Detectives and Influences

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Ethnic American detectives did not come fully into their own in mystery fiction until the 1970’s, a time of sharply increased immigration into the country and changing attitudes about ethnicity. By then, many Americans were reading detective stories by foreign writers who employed ethnically diverse characters. Examples include the South African James McClure, who wrote about the unlikely detective team of Afrikaner Tromp Kramer and Zulu Mickey Zondi; the Australian Arthur Upfield, whose Inspector Napoleon “Bony” Bonaparte often uses an Aborigine tracker in his investigations; and Janwillem van de Wetering, a Dutch writer whose characters included the Japanese inspector Saito. H. R. F. Keating wrote about an Indian police inspector named Ganesh Gote, and the British diplomat James Melville wrote about a Japanese police superintendent. The characters in the works of these and other authors combined the appealing intrigue of foreign settings with demonstrations of people of different ethnicities and nationalities working together to promote justice. The refreshing uniqueness of these detective novels helped promote the idea of ethnic diversity in American detective fiction. The concept of the ethnic detective is a natural one in American culture, which is built on ethnic diversity. While ethnic American detectives may have been slow to arrive on the scene, they have become an integral part of the modern mystery and detective genre.

African American Detectives

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

In her introduction to an anthology of long-unavailable crime and espionage stories by African American writers, novelist Paula L. Woods points out that the mystery genre offers unique opportunities for black writers to explore important social issues and counter ethnic stereotypes, while at the same time helping to educate by reaching large audiences. For these reasons and others, an immense number of African American authors have taken to writing mystery and detective fiction. The best of the African American detective stories turn on the idea of point of view, a dual perspective, a vision of the weaknesses in a system that proclaims one set of values and practices another. Their heroes, like those of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, tend to be cynical about the justice system. The issues of race they raise have also influenced authors who write about other minorities.

African American characters now occupy a significant part of the spectrum of ethnic characters in modern mystery and detective fiction, but they have actually been around for a surprisingly long time. One of the earliest black detectives was John E. Bruce’s Sadipe Okukenu, whose adventures were serialized in “The Black Sleuth” (1907-1909) in The McGirt’s Reader. A later figure, Octavius Roy Cohen’s Florian Slappey, an Alabaman transplanted to Harlem, was a black caricature in Florian Slappey (1928). Another early African American police investigator was Harlem detective Perry Dart, who appeared in Rudolph Fisher’s The Conjure-Man Dies (1932), a book that is often called the first black detective novel. During the 1940’s, African American police officers appeared only as minor figures in fiction until the African American author Joe Hughes Allison’s Detective Joe Hill appeared in “Corollary” in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine in 1948.

During the 1950’s, the first African American writer to gain serious attention in the mystery was Chester Himes. His two famous hard-boiled Harlem detectives, Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones, are outspokenly bitter about the racism that afflicts their work. Their stories forced readers to take more realistic looks at ghetto life. Johnson and Jones are always heavily armed and have their own personal...

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African American Police Detectives

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Black police officers have appeared in many works of crime fiction written by both black and nonblack authors. For example, Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct series features a black detective named Arthur “Big Bad Leroy” Brown, whose physical size often intimidates suspects into confessions. Among many others are Hugh Holton’s Chicago police commander Larry Cole; Ed Lacy’s police detective Lee Hayes; and John T. Lescroart’s San Francisco police detective Abe Glitsky, who is also part Jewish. However, the best known is probably John Ball’s Virgil Tibbs, the dignified and compassionate California policeman of In the Heat of the Night (1965), who won fame when actor Sidney Portier portrayed him in a series of film adaptations of Ball’s books. George Baxt introduced a somewhat different kind of black officer in his flamboyantly gay New York cop Pharoah Love (A Queer Kind of Death, 1966). In James Patterson’s novel Along Came a Spider (1993), Alex Cross is a Washington, D.C., police investigator with a doctorate in psychology who has had to give up his chosen vocation because few patients were willing to consult a black psychologist.

Black women police detectives are fewer in number. Among those who do exist are Richard A. Lupoff’s Berkeley homicide detective Marcia Plum, Paula L. Woods’s Los Angeles homicide detective Charlotte Justice, and Eleanor Taylor Bland’s widowed detective Marti MacAlister.

While black police officers typically face racial barriers to their promotion, distrust from fellow officers, and racist treatment from victims, witnesses, and fellow officers alike, they may just as readily be the demanding commanders of homicide squads or members of smooth-working investigatory teams. There is no clear pattern to the depictions of black police officers, except the obvious implication that they are vital to policing America’s mean streets.

Asian Mysteries

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Although the number of Americans of Asian descent is significant smaller than those of African descent, Asian Americans have written or inspired a volume of mystery and detective fiction out of proportion to their numbers. Until the late twentieth century, however, most of the Asian American characters who appeared in the genre were the creations of non-Asian American writers.

Writing as E. V. Cunningham in 1967, Howard Fast was ahead of his time when he launched his Masao Masuto series (1967-1984) with Samantha. A tall, lean Nisei man who works for the Beverly Hills Police Department, Masuto is a Zen Buddhist who speaks Spanish and empathizes with the common man. He takes on the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), big industry, white-collar criminals, funeral homes, and California liberal racists.

Asian American detectives following Fast’s lead have burgeoned. Japanese American writer Dale Furutani’s Ken Tanaka series employs a Japanese American detective who solves crimes in Los Angeles. Other Nisei detectives have included John Ball’s Bob Nakamura, Paul Bishop’s Los Angeles policewoman Tina Tamiko; Ray Gilligan’s Reiko Masada; Nan Hamilton’s Sam O’Hara; Richard LaPlante’s Josef Tanaka; and Anne Wingate’s Mark Shigata, a former FBI agent who has become a sheriff in Bayport, Texas.

Harker Moore’s Japanese American New York Police Department (NYPD) lieutenant James Sakura heads the department’s Special...

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Hispanic Detectives

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

As one might expect, there are a number of detectives of Hispanic descent. Although most of them tend to be well assimilated into mainstream American culture, they usually have the advantage of speaking two languages and can therefore enter into two distinct cultures. However, apart from superficial differences in skin color, food preferences, and attire, they are little different from mainstream figures. Some are stereotyped as good dancers, flashy dressers, or womanizers, as are Rex Burns’s Denver cop Gabe Wager; Dell Shannon’s independently wealthy and colorful Lieutenant Luis Mendoza, the head of the Los Angeles homicide department; Marilyn Wallace’s Oakland homicide detective Carlos Cruz; Richard Lockridge and Frances Lockridge’s police detective Ricardo Bueno; and Richard Martin Stern’s smartly dressed police lieutenant Johnny Ortiz. R. J. Hamilton sets his Lorenzo Garcia apart from other police officers by making him gay. Other writers have created dozens of other Hispanic police detectives and private investigators. Most are of Mexican or Central American heritage, but some trace their origins back to other parts of Latin America. K. J. A. Wishnia’s apprentice private investigator Filomena Buscarsela, who served as a New York cop, differs in being from Ecuador. However, that difference means little to her successful assimilation into American culture.

Amateur detectives vary greatly in calling. Marcia Muller’s Mexican American detective Elena Olivere is an art expert, Carol Cail’s Carmen Ramirez is a newspaper editor, Michael Nava’s Henry Rios is a defense attorney, and Manuel Ramos’s Luis Montez is an attorney and political and social activist. In some cases these investigators are proof of American diversity transformed by the melting pot; in others, they speak for those on the economic fringes of American society. In some cases they move readers into alien worlds. For example, Rudolfo Anaya’s Sonny Baca, an Albuquerque private investigator, becomes caught up in Santeria and in Native American visionary experiences that involve peyote-induced dreams, shapeshifting, and time jumping.

Jewish Detectives

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Just as it can be easy to overgeneralize about members of other ethnic groups, it can be easy to overgeneralize about Jewish Americans. In fact, American Jews can be subdivided into several overlapping communities, including completely assimilated secular Jews with little Jewish cultural identity, Reform and Conservative Jews who practice varying degrees of Jewish culture but are basically accepting of modern American culture, Orthodox Jews who practice strict adherence to Talmudic teaching, and ultra-Orthodox Jews whose powerful unifying values and determined rejection of mainstream cultural values and of less orthodox forms of Judaism often lead them to be labeled, possibly unfairly, as members of “sects.”


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Native American Mysteries

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Although Native Americans constitute one of the smallest major ethnic groups in the United States, a surprisingly large number of mystery and detective novels use Native American characters as detectives and private investigators. Andrew and Gina Macdonald’s book Shape-Shifting: Images of Native Americans in Recent Popular Fiction (2000) discusses thirty-eight authors who write about Native American detectives, and the same authors’ book Shaman or Sherlock: The Native American Detective (2001) analyzes more than one hundred fictional Native American detectives. However, despite the impressive numbers of writers and characters whom they examine, they find only a handful of writers who depict their characters in...

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Valuable Use of Ethnicity

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

At their best, ethnic detectives bring to mystery and detective fiction the type of dual vision that is sometimes attributed to exiles, people separated from their own cultures and forced to live within other cultures. Caught between two worlds, they learn to appreciate the advantages and disadvantages of two different cultures. The insights that ethnic detectives can offer may carry readers in two directions: toward an understanding of a culture and point of view alien from their own and toward a better understanding of the faults and virtues of their own communities and ways of life.

In ethnic mystery fiction, a negotiation of identity often takes place, as it does with Jim Chee in Tony Hillerman’s Navajo series. In...

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(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Bailey, Frankie Y. Out of the Woodpile: Black Characters in Crime and Detective Fiction. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1991. This volume moves from the era of slavery in antebellum America and the age of British imperialism to the post-World War II detectives and black women.

Fischer-Hornung, Dorothea, and Monika Mueller. Sleuthing Ethnicity: The Detective in Multiethnic Crime Fiction. Madison: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2003. This collection of essays considers the characteristics of ethnic detective fiction, the genre modifications effected by it, the ties of ethnicity and gender, marketing strategies for ethnic...

(The entire section is 401 words.)