Ain't that funky? Now, on to the topic.
As I doubt my ability to offer any crime fiction titles of which my esteemed co-contributors wouldn't already be familiar, my suggestions are intended to cross-pollinate our scene by offering up a few books that may not be mystery/crime titles, yet they handle their business so well, they could be a positive influence on writers who may want to touch on these areas of subject in their works. Please note that I'm avoiding Amazon links in this post, not only because I encourage gift shopping in your local small bookstores, but I hope to have a reading of my work at Seattle Mystery Bookshop one day in the future. I ain't tryin' to make them mad. KnowhatImsayin'? I think you do. On to the show:
At Bouchercon 2016 (the one where we were all perpetually inebriated,) for the audience at Noir At The Bar, I read from a work in progress featuring a young female protagonist tasked with a difficult mission against all odds. Finally reading it aloud, I could hear the inescapable influence of the late, great Octavia E. Butler's Parable Of the Sower. The first of two novels featuring Lauren Olamina, a young woman who leads a band of faithful followers through a dystopian America, this book handles the power of the feminine spirit like nothing I've ever read. The fortunate reader who unwraps this book will know gratitude.
During her lifetime, Butler was a paragon of science fiction, and yet she was rockin' intersectionality long before the term was bandied about by millenial intellectuals on Twitter. Sometimes speculative about the future, but mainly an indictment of the present, and America's loss of empathy, Parable of the Sower will learn you some shit on more than a few levels. I digested it during a painful divorce. It helped me heal then. I'm been stronger for it since.
Most folks in mystery/crime are familiar with the legendary Chester Himes for his Harlem Detective novels, featuring Coffin Ed and Gravedigger Jones. His books outside of crime explored race and racism in the United States with such searing authenticity, posthumous releases of the more incendiary works that were restored from their neutered versions have found their way to the mainstream. One such work is The End of a Primitive, for which Himes himself provided the best plot summary.
"I put a sexually frustrated American woman and a racially frustrated black American male together for a weekend in a New York apartment and allowed them to soak in American bourbon. I got the result I was looking for: a nightmare of drunkenness, unbridled sexuality, and in the end, tragedy."
Old School Books's version restores all the cuts the original publisher mandated, which were so deep, and so wounded Himes, it made him pack a trunk and bounce to Spain, where he could write and live as black as he wanted to be.
No matter how long I live in Los Angeles, I'll always be a working class kid from the South side of Chicago. It's the city that works. It's the city with big shoulders. It's the city that reared the American treasure known as Studs Terkel, actor, writer, reporter, historian, and broadcaster. His works documented not just people, but folks—real human beings who lived through their work, and worked all their lives. Before it was normal to make money of other people's money, Studs Terkel gave voice to the working man and woman of America, race and class and gender be damned. If Bernie Sanders was an author, he'd be Studs Terkel.
Division Street: America, as metaphorical (and meta) as a title about Chicago could be, is a book of recorded conversations Terkel held over a period of years with seventy real people from the Windy City, which, at the time of its publication, loomed large for its political and economic might, as well as the dichotomy of haves and have-nots. In his 1967 New York Times review, Peter Lyons wrote, "He has listened to racket guys and landladies, to a saloon-keeper, to children of the slums, to an affluent steelworker, to the well-to-do Episcopalian couple who suffered ostracism when they introduced Negroes to their Evanston neighborhood, to lonely drifters and puzzled searchers, the uprooted, the disinherited, the lost." If you want characters who are authentic working folks, put this one on your shelf.
For the aspiring or perspiring author in your life, I can't recommend the collected volumes of The Paris Review Interviews strongly enough. My man and mentor "Harvard" Mike King (you'll hear of him one day, I'm sure) recommended these to me when he was holding my hand through the first draft of A Negro and an Ofay. I had struggled with believing that anyone would want to read a novel no one asked a retired stand-up comedian to write. I wasn't so vain to believe I had any literary voice at all, so he sent me the link to these joints. I purchased them used and didn't write another word until I feasted on entries from Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, Salman Rushdie, Ralph Ellison, William Carlos Williams, Joyce Carol Oates, and so many more. My brain was bathed in the brilliance of just about each and every author I loved, a few I hadn't read, and a few I hadn't known. Once I learned about their principles, notions, biases, loves, hates, and struggles, I got over myself real quick like. Before you meet with your editor, skim through volume one. Put that rejection letter down and grab volume three. Think you're hot shit because your book is coming out soon? Before you go on your book tour, read volume four. I keep volume two on the toilet tank. Just sayin'.
Perhaps this joint can be placed in the Race category, but I include it here because race isn't just about racial issues and racism. Race is about identity—that which is inscribed upon all of us from birth. It is from this point we struggle with, or against, our slot in the American machine. Everyone knows that struggle, and when we relate to the struggle of another, we get in better touch with ourselves.
You don't have to be black to relate to the brilliant works within The Fire This Time, edited by National Book Award-winner Jesmyn Ward. You'll relate because we all occupy the same world as these powerful young voices who have honored us with their essays, memoirs, and poems. The youth point the way to our collective future by asking us to look over our shoulders at what we left in our wake. For anyone who questions the existence of the post-racial society everyone hoped for, this is the book to read to learn why it ain't here yet.
Coming off an election cycle that was hot enough to sear your orange eyebrows, you can fight fire with fire with this collection. Contributors include Carol Anderson, Jericho Brown, Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah, Isabel Wilkerson, and one of my personal inspirations, the incomparable Kiese Laymon, who I find to be the Richard Wright to Te-Nehisi Coates's Ralph Ellison. Or maybe the Malcolm to his Martin. All I'm sayin' is, if you know someone who constantly says, "You know, I've been meaning to pick up a copy of Between The World And Me," then buy The Fire This Time, wrap them shits together, gift them both as a set, and get ready to hear "Oh my God, I had no idea," the next time you have coffee with your favorite armchair quarterbacking liberal. I kid. Sorta.
Best of luck with all your gift giving and holiday preparations. Now I gotta bounce, 'cuz these are far too many words on a piece that didn't have to be due to my publishing house editor yesterday.
Happy Thanksgiving, y'all!