Re: RARA-AVIS: Racial minorities in classic crime fiction

From: Etienne Borgers (
Date: 16 Jul 2003

I cannot answer your basic question about the documentation on publishers, but your feeling about the absence of racial topics in HB/Noir of the 40-50s is not totally true, neither the absence of Black Americans as central characters in some novels written by white authors. Reality of these days was that these topics when treated in a realist manner, with violence and social insanity as corollaries, did not find easily an American publisher.

The first example I remember is Don Tracy's HOW SLEEP THE BEAST, the story of a young Black man having murdered a white woman in Maryland. One of the climaxes was the chase and lynching of the culprit by a mad crowd, wherein violence and brutal description of a mutilation built one of the tougher scenes I know about the subject in a novel. Published in 1937 ! Was at first rejected by the American publishers (but is this really a surprise?), and its first release happened in the UK.

Richard Marsten (= Ed McBain) wrote a novel about the unjustified chase of a young Black man suspected of having murdered a thug. The whole thing has Harlem as background, is rather dense, and the young Black is the central character. That's RUNAWAY BLACK (1954).

Richard Jessup's THE CUNNING AND THE HAUNTED (1954) which is basically a novel about the coming of age of an orphan teenager, gives very violent descriptions of the worlds of convicts and abandoned children. An old Black man, escaped convict, is an important secondary character, and a part of the novel takes place in Black peoples' environment. Very noir and tough.

For Mexicans playing an important part, see William O'Farell's WETBACK
(1956). The title says all about what kind of Mexicans are depicted therein… Violent and tough and a strong anti-racism slant.

There's more than this list, but I didn't read recently most of the remaining novels. So, my remembrance of those that could be added is not very accurate…

E.Borgers Hard-Boiled Mysteries

At 12:43 16-07-03 -0400, you wrote:
>I've noticed that in noir crime novels of the 40s and 50 by white
>novelists (Goodis, Chandler, Woolrich, Hammett) that African-American
>and Puerto Rican characters have only minor roles, especially of a
>positive nature, even though the downtown honky-tonk or ghetto areas
>loom large in the stories. I may be simply wrong on this, and I know
>Goodis gave some important roles to Puerto Ricans (Eddie's first wife in
>_Down There_, the gang in _Street of No Return_). I was wondering what
>the requirements of the publishers had to do with this. They might have
>had templates regarding race, as they had regarding allowable use of
>four-letter words, sexual explicitness, and extreme violence. Perhaps
>the publishers thought their readership was not interested in ethnic
>minorities other than Europeans. Does anyone know if the paperback or
>hardback publishers had such templates regarding race? Are any archives
>available, other than for New American Library?

# To unsubscribe from the regular list, say "unsubscribe rara-avis" to
#  This will not work for the digest version.
# The web pages for the list are at .

This archive was generated by hypermail 2b29 : 16 Jul 2003 EDT