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Mounting interest among readers

'Black noir' turns a page in the mystery genre

Publishers are featuring more African-American books than ever before in response to growing demand

Web posted on: Monday, July 12, 1999 6:12:48 PM EDT

From CNN Correspondent Jennifer Auther

LOS ANGELES (CNN) -- Buoyed by rapidly widening success, African-American mystery and crime-fiction writers are celebrating what booksellers and collectors call a renaissance of interest in their genre.

Major United States publishing houses recently have signed at least 30 black writers, whose stories about social and political injustice and racism have struck a chord with a growing black middle class.

"Until very recently," says Walter Mosley, author of the popular Easy Rawlins series, "publishers weren't aware of the fact that African-Americans do so much reading."

The first book in Mosley's series, "Devil in a Blue Dress" (published on audiotape and in paperback) became a large-scale hit and was made into a 1995 film starring Denzel Washington and Jennifer Beals.

Among Mosley's fans: President Bill Clinton, who calls the writer one of his favorite authors.

'A part of L.A. history people don't know'

Although Mosley is probably the best-known black mystery writer today, booksellers say several others are poised to soar up the book charts. Paula Woods and Gary Phillips are named as two of these up-and-coming writers.

The 1992 Los Angeles riots inspired Woods to write "Inner City Blues," a novel about a black female homicide detective who grew up in the middle class. "I try to bring up a part of L.A. history people don't know," Woods says.

Phillips, on the other hand, concentrates on politics and social issues in a series of volumes focusing on the aftermath of the riots.

"The first book, 'Violent Spring,'" he says, "takes place after the riots in 1992," Phillips said. "The second book deals with both white-supremacist skinheads and multiracial skinheads. The third book is about black and Latino tensions in Los Angeles."

From Himes' detectives to late-century hope

African-American mystery and crime-fiction writers first put pen to page at the turn of the 20th century. But U.S. expatriate Chester Himes ("All Shot Up" and "The Real Cool Killers" have been reissued in recent years) became the first widely successful such author in the 1950s. He created two popular hard-boiled Harlem detectives Coffin Ed Jones and Gravedigger Johnson.

Now, readers seem more eager than ever to embrace a genre some call "black noir."

"The interest extends beyond the black community, too," says author Gary Hardwick, whose new "Supreme Justice: A Novel of Suspense was just published in June by William Morrow & Company.

"There's an urgency to our work that you might not see other places," he says, "because in the African-American community there's historically been a lot of frustration."

And so it is that mystery writing, as seen through the filter of African-American life, is rife not only with the usual false starts and trapdoors -- but also with hope.


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