The entire sixteen months' worth of choices is here.
Ed Gorman is the author of THE MIDNIGHT ROOM, SLEEPING DOGS and many other fine crime and western novels.
The Collected Stories of Stephen Crane
As the prime creator of Realism Stephen Crane shocked the world of letters both in his writing and his personal life. His first book was Maggie: A Girl of The Streets and he spent a good share of his adult life (as much of it as there was--he died at twenty-eight) living with Cora Taylor, the madame of a brothel. He wrote dozens of short stories as well as his masterpiece The Red Badge of Courage.
While he was accepted and praised by the literary critics of the time, he was frequently derided for the pessimism and violence of his stories. He brought "the stink of the streets" into literature as one reviewer said. But his streets could be found all over America, not just in the cities.
The Open Boat, The Blue Hotel, The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky, Shame and The Upturned Face give us portraits of different Americas. As I was rereading them lately I realized that they all have two things in common--their utter sense of social isolation and the intensity of their telling. Hemingway always put up The Blue Hotel as one of the most intense-"bedeviled"--stories in our language and man he was right. The fist fight in the blizzard on the blind side of the barn is one of those most hellish insane scenes I've ever read. And the ironic words at the last honestly gave me chills, even though I knew what was coming. His years as a journalist gave him a compassion for society's discards no matter where they lived or what color they happened to be.r
His sense of place changed writing. Whether he was writing about the slums of Brooklyn or the endless ghostly plains of Nebraska in winter, his early years as a poet gave his images true clarity and potency. One critic of the time said his stories were possessed of "a filthy beauty" and that nails it.
Only a few of his stories are taught today; Red Badge is mandatory in schools. But in the many collections available of his stories you find a passion for life and language that few writers have ever equaled. Too many American masters get lost in the shuffle of eras. Crane is not only an artist he's one of the finest storytellers I've ever read.
Louis Willis, THE CONJURE MAN DIES, Rudolph Fisher
In 1995, I retired from my job as a Federal government employee, and in 1996, after being away for 42 years, I returned to my hometown of Knoxville, TN. In 2000, I enrolled in the Master Degree program at the University of Tennessee and received my degree in English literature in 2004.
After receiving my degree, I looked around for something to occupy my time. So, I became editor of the newsletter for my high school class in which I keep the members of the class of 1954 informed about other members and reunions. I became interested in digital photography but didn’t take any courses. I just like to take pictures and use my camcorder to video my oldest grandson’s football and basketball games so that I’ll have the DVDs of his career from the time he was five years old and told me he was going to play in the NFL.
Most important, I returned to my first love: reading. I began once again to read detective stories. I am reading my way through mysteries and crime fiction written by Black American writers and trying, as my blog indicates, to make readers aware of these Black American writers.
Other than Shakespeare, I have no one favorite author; some of my favorites are Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Arthur Conan Doyle, Raymond Chandler, Walter Mosley, Charlotte Carter, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, Katherine Ann Porter, Eudora Welty. As for the authors of today, I have not read enough of them to have a favorite. Moreover, so many novels are published each year that I don’t think I could read enough of them to pick a favorite. As far as possible, I try to read the writers of detective/crime fiction. In one month of the year, usually December, I read a non-mystery novel by a contemporary author. YOu can find more of Louis' reviews here.
I recommend to readers of detective stories a novel I consider a classic of the genre and which I have included in my canon of Black detective/crime fiction. THE CONJURE-MAN DIES: A MYSTERY TALE OF DARK HARLEM by Rudolph Fisher (1897-1934) is the story of African mysticism and murder in Harlem. Fisher was a major literary figure in the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s and early 1930s. During his short career, he wrote only two novels, THE WALLS OF JERICHO and THE CONJURE-MAN DIES. At the time, THE CONJURE MAN DIES was the only detective novel written by a Black American.
THE CONJURE MAN DIES should be canonized because Fisher shows that he was a master of the closed-door type mystery and because of his use of African culture and Black American characters and culture. THE CONJURE MAN DIES, however, is not a social document demonstrating Black folks could write novels. It is a good story well told.
THE CONJURE-MAN DIES is the classic closed-door mystery. Frimbo, an African fortune-teller, is found dead in his office but reappears later very much alive and helps New York police detective, Perry Dart, and Dr. John Archer, M. D., who also helps Dart, identify the victim and trap the murderer. To the classical detective story formula, Fisher adds the milieu of the Black community of Harlem, Black detectives, an African victim, and African and Black American cultures.
Fisher also goes against the classic conflict between the amateur and the police detectives. Dart and Archer are the Holmes and Watson of Harlem. In their relationship, neither Dart nor Dr. Archer is superior to the other. Both think logically. But Dart thinks like a detective, speculating much of the time, while Dr. Archer has a scientific mind and is more cautious in his observations and conclusions. He wants scientific proof.
Frimbo, a tribal Chief in his home country of Liberia, was the intended victim but his servant, who, to protect the Chief, often took his place, was murdered instead. In helping Dart and Dr. Archer, Frimbo becomes the third detective, putting his life in danger. Dr. Archer describes Frimbo as “’a native African, a Harvard graduate, a student of philosophy—and a sorcerer.’” Fisher explores African culture and philosophy through interesting philosophical discussions between Frimbo and Dr. Archer, who dislikes Frimbo because of his superior attitude.
Bubber Brown, a streetwise Harlemite and would-be detective, adds the comic to the story and is instrumental in helping solve the crime. He is a misdirection character who lightens the gothic atmosphere and leads the reader through the dark Harlem underworld, which adds two gangsters to the most likely suspect list because of their relations with Frimbo. Bubber joins the search for the killer in order to clear the name of his friend Jinx from the list.
“Dark Harlem” in the title suggests a gothic atmosphere. Where in Harlem can such atmosphere be found? How about a funeral home full of dead bodies? Frimbo’s office is in the same building as the funeral home. His seemingly mystical ability to tell the fortunes of the middle class Harlemites who visit him and the necessary examination of the dead bodies when the original murder victim disappears creates gothic atmosphere Harlem style.
If you enjoy Sherlock Holmes stories, you will enjoy THE CONJURE-MAN DIES: A MYSTERY TALE OF DARK HARLEM. I wish Fisher had written more novels about his two Harlem detectives Perry Dart and Dr. John Archer and at least one novel about detective Bubber Brown.
Rafe McGregor is the author of THE ARCHITECT OF MURDER. He's one of the foremost authorities on Sherlock Holmes and you can find him here.
Falling Angel by William Hjortsberg.
Once again my choice for a forgotten book is one which was made into a successful Hollywood movie. Angel Heart (starring Robert De Niro, Mickey Rourke, and Lisa Bonet) appeared on the big screen in 1987, nine years after the publication of Falling Angel, and proved a faithful adaptation of the novel. Apparently the film only broke even with its seventeen million dollar budget, but it has subsequently acquired something of a cult status (rightly so, in my opinion). Nonetheless, as far as I can tell the book is only currently in print thanks to No Exit Press, who published an eighteenth birthday paperback edition in 2005.
Falling Angel almost defies description, and it’s very difficult to write about it without revealing too much of the ingenious plot. Essentially, it’s a hardboiled detective story set in New York in 1959, and the plot follows private eye Harry Angel’s attempt to track down a missing wartime crooner named Johnny Favorite. There is an eerie and unsettling atmosphere as Angel learns that Favorite wasn’t a very nice chap at all, even if he was a very successful singer. I’ll leave it there, suffice to say that the writing is worthy of Hammett, Thompson, and Chandler at their best. To quote Stephen King on the novel: “Terrific…One of a kind…I’ve never read anything remotely like it.”
And I think that’s one of the reasons it has largely been forgotten. As much as publishers and readers all praise ‘originality’ in novels, it’s quite obviously that they (and we – I’m as much to blame as anyone) don’t really like anything too original. What shelf does a cross-genre novel go on in a bookshop? How can a truly original novel be marketed in terms of, ‘if you liked author A, you’ll love book B’, etc.? As readers we like to know what we’re picking up, because the book we select often reflects our mood and is certainly determined by the type of entertainment we’re seeking. Books like Falling Angel aren’t predictable in any way, and I probably wouldn’t ever have stumbled across it if I hadn’t sought it out after seeing the film. More than anything else, that shows the novel’s impact on me: knowing the solution of the mystery didn’t ruin the story for me, and I can’t remember when that last happened.
If you haven’t seen Angel Heart yet, buy the DVD, put it on the shelf, and track down a copy of the book first.of the best crime novels of the twentieth century, and it’s such a shame to see it fading into obscurity…
Michael Koryta is the author of five novels, including the 2008 LA Times Book Prize winner, Envy the Night, and the forthcoming The Silent Hour.
TOMATO RED, Daniel Woodrell
In a literal sense, Daniel Woodrell's "Tomato Red" doesn't meet forgotten book standards as it is neither an old text, nor, I suspect, forgotten by a single soul who actually read it. Overlooked, then, let's c If you like noir, hardboiled crime, or clever mysteries, you definitely won’t be disappointed. Falling Angel is one all it that, and agree that such a thing is a damn shame because Woodrell is as good a writer as anyone alive. There's no easing into the story in Tomato Red -- we pick up our narrator, Sammy Barlach, riding a good crank high and breaking into a mansion with a pair of "trailer-park bums," the sort Sammy imagines are the only crowd that will have him. From there you're along for a swift, insightful, and tragic ride narrated in a way only Woodrell can manage. There's a touch of Twain in the observations of his protagonist/narrator -- "You might think I should've quit on the burglary right there, but I just love people, I guess, and didn't." -- and a dose of James Agee in his handling of rural social class frustrations (rage?) but the writing is all his own, and there aren't many writers out there who can come close. Is Tomato Red as powerful and fully realized a novel as Winter's Bone or The Death of Sweet Mister? No. But it's a hell of a book, one that can make you laugh out loud in the first half of a sentence and then twist your heart in the second, and when you find a writer capable of such feats, you ought to read every word they put on paper.
Booked For Murder