I’ve written about diversity in literature before, but this time I’m going to be a bit more specific. As in the welcome increased diversity in thrillers and mysteries during the past few decades.
Many right-wing Republicans would find that “woke,” but they’re welcome to fall asleep listening to Ron DeSantis speeches.
There was of course some diversity in long-ago mysteries and thrillers, but old novels in those genres often featured white male detectives in lead roles and mostly “conventional” women in supporting roles. If there were rare inclusions of people of color, those characters were usually depicted in cringe stereotypical fashion.
Famous white male detectives of the 19th century and the first decades of the 20th century included Edgar Allan Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin (in three short stories rather than any novels), Charles Dickens’ Inspector Bucket, Wilkie Collins’ Sergeant Cuff, Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot, Dorothy L. Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey, Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade, and Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, among others.
There were a few long-ago exceptions of strong females as leads or co-stars in crime fiction, including Miss Marple and Harriet Vane in the novels by the aforementioned Christie and Sayers, respectively; Marian Halcombe of Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White; and…Nancy Drew! But the portrayal of people of color in, say, Christie’s otherwise fabulous Death on the Nile? Ugh. And LGBTQ+ people were usually not portrayed at all; if they were, it was almost always in a veiled, negative way.
I got to thinking about all this last week while reading Still Life (2005), the absorbing debut novel in Louise Penny’s series starring investigator Armand Gamache. He’s a white guy, but the residents of Three Pines — the small Canadian town where the murder in Still Life occurs — are a wonderful mix: a Black woman who owns a bookstore, a white female artist, a white female poet, two gay restaurant operators, etc. Plus some female investigators and a Jewish female prosecutor. Most are three-dimensional; their color, gender, sexual orientation, and religion/culture are part of who they are, but not all of who they are.
There was a similar mix in Caleb Carr’s The Alienist and its scintillating sequel, The Angel of Darkness — both written in the 1990s and both set in the 1890s. The team investigating some very seedy goings-on include white men, a woman, a Black man, and two Jewish detective brothers. Given the 19th-century timeframe, Sara Howard, Cyrus Montrose, and Marcus and Lucius Isaacson are hit with plenty of nasty societal bias, but the mostly cordial interactions within the investigating team are inspiring. Everyone is respected for what they bring to the table.
Women and people of color who are the flat-out stars of crime series? They include private investigator Kinsey Millhone of Sue Grafton’s “Alphabet Mysteries” (first installment published in 1982), Black private investigator Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins of Walter Mosley’s novels (debut book in 1990), and bounty hunter Stephanie Plum of Janet Evanovich’s novels (a 1994 start), to name a few protagonists. Oh, and Rita Mae Brown’s 1990-launched mysteries with Mary “Harry” Haristeen (and some animal detectives 🙂 ) as well as Dorothy Gilman’s Mrs. Pollifax novels starring an amateur CIA agent. That latter series, which began in 1966, does have some stereotypical moments with its senior-citizen lead character, but overall Emily P. is fairly modern in her way.
A female investigator co-starring in a series? That would be Robin Ellacott of J.K. Rowling’s crime novels. Male investigator Cormoran Strike was the initial focus of the series (written under the pen name Robert Galbraith), but Ellacott moved into a position of essentially being equal to Strike.
Quite a few of John Grisham’s novels — The Racketeer, The Judge’s List, The Client, etc. — have Black characters as protagonists or in memorable secondary roles. And Lee Child’s Jack Reacher novels (now co-written by Andrew Child) have plenty of women and people of color (female or male) as significant supporting players.
Your thoughts on this topic?
My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.
In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com every Thursday. The latest piece — about a current court case that makes some of my town’s leaders and their attorneys look pathetic — is here.