When I decided to write a hardboiled detective series I did what most fiction writers do. I set out to explore my detective’s predecessors, the characters he’d be compared to when he made his appearance.
That turned out to require a lot less time than I expected it to. As a hardboiled detective with an African heritage, Hannibal Jones turned out to have few predecessors. The best known black mystery characters, chronicled by Walter Mosley, James Patterson, Chester Himes and Hugh Holton, are policemen or amateur sleuths.
So where are all the men of color following in Phillip Marlowe’s gumshoe footsteps? Ed Lacy introduced the first credible African-American private eye, Toussaint Moore, in 1957. He won an Edgar, but no one followed his lead. I assumed that John Shaft would turn the tide when he appeared in 1971. Ernest Tidyman's Harlem private eye was so hardboiled that at the time my friends and I jokingly referred to him as “Sam: Spade Detective.” Yet despite his film success, there was no rush of imitators. All the African American private eyes seem to have vanished mysteriously.
I can hear all the Caucasian authors out there now, shaking their heads and muttering, “Don’t blame me.” Well, why not? African American authors write white characters all the time, so why not reverse that spin. And white authors don’t seem to have any trouble writing black characters as sidekicks, or villains. Why not write them as detectives?
Of course, there is the danger of stereotyping. Your ethnic readers will look very closely at any characters you introduce who don’t look like you. So how do you get it right when you’re writing about people from another race and culture? Here are three hints that will help you.
Observe: spend time in the grocery stores, restaurants and bars filled with mostly faces of color. Don’t worry, no one will assault you as long as you mind your own business. And by listening closely you’ll get a feel for the attitudes and interests of that group, not to mention their food and drink preferences. You will also develop a feel for the rhythm of language and common phrases they use. I’ve found this works for Latin, Korean and Iranian characters too.
Avoid dialect: When we change the way words are spelled to imitate the sound of someone’s voice we not only insult them, we make it harder for readers to get through our writing. All you need to do to get the dialog perfect is to use the words your characters would use in their own unique order. Your reader will “hear” what you meant, be it North Dakota Swedish or inner city black.
Get a reality check: First, make a black friend. Next, have that friend read your work and beg them to be honest in their feedback. Watch their face as they read. Ask them to test the dialog aloud, and listen for changes they may make unconsciously. If your friend balks at something, don’t debate it, change it.
The most important thing, of course, is to remember that we are all more alike than different. Human motivations, desires, fears and joys are universal, so make sure your black characters are first and foremost human.
And in case you’re skeptical about writing a black detective, let me remind you that Toussaint Moore’s creator, Ed Lacy, was actually a white guy named Leonard Zinberg.