Reading for Black History Month

When we opened Aunt Agatha’s in 1992, we celebrated Black History Month every February by putting the work of black authors in our front window.  In 1992, that group of authors was small, and if we were to still be an open store, out window display would be much larger.  In 1992 it included Eleanor Taylor Bland, Hugh Holton, Iceberg Slim, Chester Himes, Donald Goines and of course, Walter Mosley, whose first novel, Devil in a Blue Dress, was published in 1990.  Bill Clinton, a famous mystery fan, had helped his career by mentioning him as a favorite writer.

Because Bland and Holton were “local” ish – they were from Chicago – they did visit the store a handful of times along with their friend Barbara D’Amato.  I never ceased suggesting Bland to readers.  Her books were appealing in many ways.  Barbara Neely’s first book, Blanche on the Lam, was published the year we opened, and she was also a favorite recommendation.  In 1994 Chassie West published her first mystery, Sunrise, and she was joined by another favorite, Valerie Wilson Wesley, whose moving and compulsively readable When Death Comes Stealing was also published in 1994.  This series had a good run and I’m happy to see Ms. Wesley has a new series with a new book coming this February, A Fatal Glow.  Watch this space for a review.

In 1999 Paula Woods burst on the scene with her incredible novel Inner City Blues, a stand out in many ways.  While this was another title I loved to handsell, out best selling Paula Woods title was actually the anthology she edited, Spooks, Spies and Private Eyes (1995).  Walter Mosely was still going strong (and still is!) in 1999 so by 2000, our front window was full.  Mosely, Neely, Goines, West, Wesley and of course Bland, Holton and the “classics” – Iceberg Slim, Chester Himes, and Donald Goines.

A word on Donald Goines.  Many of you may be unfamiliar with his work, but he was our best selling African American writer the entire time we were open.  People would be delighted to see all his titles lined up in a row.  Goines was a criminal and an addict who started writing in prison, capturing a particularly brutal slice of the African American experience.  He wrote 16 books, mainly between 1972 and 1975, churning out several books a year.  His most well known title (reprinted at one point by a prestige publisher) is Daddy Cool (1974).  However, I’m sure part of the reason Goines sold so well for us was our proximity to Detroit, where Goines was born and spent most of his life.

The period of the late 90’s early 2000’s also saw the work of writers like Gar Anthony Haywood and Pamela Thomas-Graham.  Haywood’s first novel was actually published in 1988, but he became better known in the late 90’s.  Thomas-Graham’s first book, A Darker Shade of Crimson, was published in 1998.  Charlotte Carter, a fan of film noir and mystery fiction, wrote the Nanette Hayes series between 1997-2001.  Terris McMahan Grimes, the author of 3 novels, won the Anthony Award for Best First Novel and Best Paperback Original for Somebody Else’s Child (1996).

Penny Mickelbury, a former reporter, writes 3 different series, the most recent being You Can’t Die but Once (2020).  Grace F. Edwards wrote the Mali Anderson series between 1997 and 2000, and then wrote two novels.  Frankie Y. Bailey wrote the Lizzie Stuart series, a very traditional take on the detective novel, between 2000-2007.  Bailey is an also an academic.  While we were for years next to an LGBTQ bookshop and didn’t carry all LGBTQ mystery writers, Nikki Baker had a four book series published between 1991-1998.

More recently, writers like Attica Locke, S.A. Cosby, Rachel Howzell Hall, Alyssa Cole, Lauren Wilkinson and Kellye Garrett have expanded the genre – what a plethora of riches.  Attica Locke is an Edgar winner for her first novel, Black Water Rising (2009) and for Bluebird, Bluebird (2017).  S.A. Cosby is widely acclaimed as one of the best new writers of any kind, with Blacktop Wasteland (2020) scooping up about every mystery award and his next book, Razorblade Tears (2021) following up on that trajectory.  Rachel Howzell Hall has distinguished herself as a top suspense writer, most recently with And Now She’s Gone (2020) and These Toxic Things (2021).  Alyssa Cole’s breakout, in a transition from YA fiction, When No One is Watching (2020), was a suspense novel that also examined gentrification in Brooklyn.  Lauren Wilkinson wrote the especially memorable American Spy (2019) and Kellye Garrett has embraced the mainstream with her award winning private eye series launched with Hollywood Homicide (2017).  She has a suspense thriller scheduled for this year, Like a Sister.  Stephen Mack Jones, a Detroit writer, is a favorite write of mine with his fresh take on private eye fiction.  His first novel, August Snow, was published in 2017.   There’s also Wanda Morris, whose thriller All Her Little Secrets was published last year.

It’s a wonderful that African American writers are finding acclaim, an audience and garnering a healthy number of awards for their work.   February is not long enough to discover all the books by these writers, but you can make a start.  What better way to spend a cold winter day?