White characters and authors dominate the historical mysteries of the 1920s and 1930s. Here are five mystery novels written by African-American authors expanding the genre to be more accurate to the many lives people lived during this tumultuous time. Most books are centered in Harlem, the epicenter of an African American cultural renaissance. If you have any favorite books written by African-American authors that you don’t see here, please shout them out in the comments below.
The Conjure-Man Dies by Rudolph Fisher
Rudolph Fisher’s only full-length work before his untimely death explores depression-era Harlem from the vantage point of an African-American detective Perry Dart and his friend, Doctor John Archer, who team up to solve who killed N’Gana Frimbo, an African conjure-man. This is a groundbreaking book in African-American mysteries, with an all-black cast, initially written in 1932 and beautifully republished by the Library of Congress Crime Classics in 2022.
Dead Dead Girls (A Harlem Renaissance Mystery, 1) by Nekesa Afia
In 1926 Harlem African American women are being found murdered, but Louise Llyod is trying to ignore what’s happening around her. Louise, a victim of a harrowing kidnapping when she was a teenager, is just trying to live an everyday life. By day she works in Maggie’s Cafe, and in the evenings, she’s at Zodiac, a hot speakeasy. When another girl is found dead in front of the cafe where she works, she can n longer pretend everything is fine. After confronting the police, she’s arrested and given a choice: work the case with them or enjoy a cold jail cell. Louise chooses to help catch this ruthless killer. A fast-paced story with a lesbian romance, intrigue, and plenty of murder.
All That is Secret (An Annalee Spain Mystery, 1) by Patricia Raybon
Bible College Professor Annalee Spain is called home to Denver, Colorado, to investigate the death of her estranged father, but that’s no easy feat in a city ruled by the Ku Klux Klan. Steeled by the inspiration of Sherlock Holmes, Annalee makes her inquiries and, along the way, finds two critical allies, Eddie, a young white boy looking for his missing father, and Jack, a handsome and modern Black pastor. Together this trio plumbs the dangerous depths of the ruling elite for clues.
A Death in Harlem: A Novel by Karla F. C. Holloway
Weldon Hayne Thomas, New York’s first ‘colored ‘colored’ policeman, is on duty at the Hotel Theresa while Harlem’s elite attends the Opportunity Awards when one of the recipients, Olivia Frelon, mysteriously falls out of a window, Unsure of whether she fell or was pushed, the police begin investigating the crime, but stop looking in earnest when it is revealed that Olivia is not white-only white-passing. However, Weldon Thomas will not let the case go and realizes this crime is connected to the violent death of Maisie James, who was killed the same night as Olivia. It’s a race against time for Weldon Thomas to find a killer hunting black women in Harlem.
Goodfellowe House (A Lanie Price Mystery, 1) by Persia Walker
Pianist Esther Todd vanished on a cold December night in 1923. Her distraught mother hopes there will be new leads three years laterwhen journalist Lanie Price covers the hard case in her column. Join the tenacious Lanie Walker as she navigates prohibition-era Harlem in this dark noir mystery.
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