December 09, 2015

The Crime Lady #045: On Hughes Allison, Women Crime Writers at Film Forum, and My 2015 Crime List

We're just two days away from the start of the Women Crime Writers mini-festival at Film Forum! The film versions of Laura and In A Lonely Place kick things off on Friday night, both introduced by Megan Abbott, with showings of La Rupture, The Reckless Moment, The American Friend, Don't Bother to Knock (introduced by Geoffrey O'Brien on December 16th) Band of Outsiders (introduced by me on the closing night, December 17th) and much more over the course of the series. Very much hope to see those of you who can make it to one or several screenings.

So perhaps that's why there has been a spate of coverage for the two volume set all week long, including a television segment (!) on News 12 Long Island (thank you, Newsday books editor Tom Beer), as well as being named one of the Boston Globe's Best Books of 2015, a "must have" designation on Oline Cogdill's Best-of list, and deemed a "top edited work" by J. Kingston Pierce for Kirkus. All of this news is thrilling and I am so grateful for those who have bought and read the 2-volume set, and those who plan to read, buy, and/or give it as a holiday gift. Thank you all.

This is also a good time to announce that the Library of America is reissuing four additional novels by Dolores Hitchens -- Nets to Catch the Wind, The Watcher, Sleep With Strangers and Sleep With Slander --  in digital format. Some more information on that here. (And why not start stocking up on some Margaret Millar ebooks, too?)

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This is Hughes Allison, and thanks to my just-published essay in The New Republic, more people will know who he is and why he was an important, but utterly forgotten, part of crime fiction history.

TCL readers may recall I wrote of an anthology called Spooks, Spies, and Private Eyes that Paula Woods edited and published twenty years ago, which collected the best and most influential stories by 20th century African American crime writers. That was where I first encountered "Corollary" by Hughes Allison, the first black contributor to Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, and that set me on a path to writing the essay (also published in TNR's January/February print issue.)

The essay is in large part about Allison, who at one point had a reasonably successful play run on Broadway in the late 1930s, and his near-total erasure from the record of crime fiction, regrettably in part because he simply did not publish much work featuring his black detective character, Joe Hill, during his lifetime. But the piece is also in part about how that erasure, and ensuing vacuum, enabled John Ball to publish In The Heat of the Night, which introduced Virgil Tibbs to the reading public and is itself reissued as a Penguin Classic this month.

I explain my issues with the book and the attempt to place it as part of a literary canon when what people really remember -- rightfully so -- is the 1967 film starring Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger. But mostly I want to restore some bit of glory to Hughes Allison. I loved reading his work, and his letters, and I'm glad you will be able to be exposed to those in part through my essay.

Thanks to TNR for publishing the essay but above all to Michelle Legro for totally getting what I was trying to accomplish and making it so with excellent edits, and to Laura Reston, who fact-checked the daylights out of the piece, no small task when hard-to-access literary archives were involved! Thanks to the Newark Public Library (and specifically, Tom, who was my contact there) for making Hughes Allison's archives available without restrictions, and to Allison's niece-by-marriage Edna Friman, who gave gracious permission to quote from his correspondence.

Many thanks to Margery Flax of MWA for the access to old Edgar annuals (from which Ball's later quotes about Virgil Tibbs came from) and to the Howard Gotlieb Center at Boston University, which houses John Ball's archives. An interesting point here: Ball's archives are extensive and well-documented, but there is absolutely nothing pertaining to In the Heat of the Night; there are manuscripts and other miscellania related to books published before and after, but not this one. I'm not sure why.

Finally, there are always space and scope constraints to consider, but I wish I'd had room to talk a little bit more about Allison's wife, Elitea "Lee" Bulkley Allison (1913-2007). She was a children's librarian in the Newark Public Library system for more than 45 years, and also served as an Edgar Judge for Best Juvenile for about three years, consecutively in the early 1960s. Children and students, by accounts I dug up, loved her, and if there is anyone responsible for making sure we know who Hughes Allison was and why he deserves recognition today, it is Lee.

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The last TCL dispatch dealt with my favorite books published some other year than 2015. Now we get to the favorites in crime -- fiction and nonfiction, and whatever's in between -- that was published this calendar year. Friends are included, because it's an honor and a privilege to know and read such talented, fantastic writers. I limited myself to writing up just a dozen-- 9 fiction, 3 nonfiction -- but that's kind of an arbitrary cutoff, to be sure, as is the order of presentation:

Don Winslow, The Cartel. The sequel to The Power of the Dog that might even be better than its predecessor It's certainly a standout in terms of scope and storytelling, reminiscent of Roberto Bolano but so much in keeping with what I love most about Winslow's work -- and here there are a number of unforgettable, indelible female characters, from Marisol, risking her life in a poor community to tend to those who need medical care, to TK, drug lord mistress looking for a bigger slice of the cartel pie, and betting against her is the wrong idea. It's soaked with blood and betrayal and ends exactly as it ought.

Elisabeth de Mariaffi, The Devil You Know. Books published at the beginning of the year have a maddening tendency to get lost in the best-of shuffle, so it's been heartening to see that not happen for de Mariaffi (at least in my native Canada) and now it's my turn, again, to implore you to read this wonderful, suspenseful novel of a young woman's reckoning with secrets in her and her mother's past against the backdrop of a slew of disappearances and murders of girls and women in the early 1990s. I felt like this book was plugged into my brain. Perhaps it was. (National Post review; Crime Lady Q&A)

Duane Swierczynski, Canary. I applaud all major leaps forward but this one was pure delight and surprise, in terms of raising the stakes, creating a portrait of Philadelphia that felt true and surreal all at once, and because of Sarie, snared in the net of unwitting dupe turned regular informant, until she decides to take control of her life, no matter who is destroyed along the way.

Laura Lippman, Hush Hush. Tess Monaghan is back and her return is welcome, and the case she's on is a heartbreaker and keeps the reader guessing till the very end, but what I remember most, and keep thinking about, is that damn scene in the supermarket, as Carla Scout throws a tantrum and Tess...just...has....to....deal. In fact I think I'll go reread that scene and I bet I'll get sucked back into the book again. Only six more months till the standalone Wilde Lake? The time will pass fast.

Chris Holm, The Killing Kind. As I said when I first wrote up the experience of reading the galley last summer, Holm is channeling the very best of Thomas Perry in this story of a hitman who specializes in killing other hitman. It's almost ballet-like the way Michael Hendricks battles his foes, and everything is an artful stage, but also incredibly thrilling to read.

Amy Stewart, Girl Waits With Gun. I said more about how much I adored this book for The Guardian, but I haven't enjoyed a series debut like this and been transported back in time so effortlessly, so much so it was a bit of a daze to be vaulted back into the 21st century. There will be more adventures featuring the adventurous sisters Kopp, and I for one cannot wait.

Ted Lewis, GHB. I suppose this technically counts as a retro read, since it was published in 1980 in the UK, two years before Lewis' premature death at the age of 42. But US publication never happened until Soho Press got hold of it, and in doing so blew another hole in my consciousness. It's dark and dirty and moving and tragic, shot through with the bitter humor that was Lewis' hallmark, and it's something of a requiem for his entire career and life.

Steph Cha, Dead Soon Enough. If you read Follow Her Home, which first introduced Juniper Song, and skipped ahead to this, Song's third appearance, the leaps and bounds in both the character and Cha's writing are quite substantive. To fold in a thoughtful examination of the Armenian genocide along with Song's increasing competence as a private detective, her struggles to form lasting female friendships, and the many deaths that haunt her psyche, that's some audacious risk-taking. But Cha more than pulls it off. And while I'll miss Song, I seriously cannot wait to see what she comes up with in this Korean feminist noir standalone novel Cha is cooking up at the moment. (Crime Lady Q&A; LA Review of Books Q&A)

Attica Locke, Pleasantville. This sequel to Black Water Rising, set in 1996, is bold, ambitious, thoughtful, and moreover, wonderfully political. I loved all of the backroom machinations as I did Jay Porter trying valiantly to be a single father, 15 years removed from his first appearance, not always succeeding, doing the best he possibly can.

Jill Leovy, Ghettoside. Much of my favorite nonfiction this year was of a criminal bent, so I'll save write-ups of those elsewhere, but this was the tops. Leovy lived and breathed this book, chronicling the difficulty trying to tackle large systemic issues of race and poverty that threaten to boil over daily, if not hourly, as seen through the people who live in those LA neighborhoods and the cops who strive for justice but don't always get it. There are only gray shades of humanity on display here, at a time of easy polarization, which makes Ghettoside all the more vital.

Martin Edwards, The Golden Age of Murder. Really, it comes down to -- how cool an idea to tell the story of the dawn of the Detection Club? I'm so glad Edwards embarked on this project and revealed why the Golden Age of detective fiction was so formative and important.

Suzanne Marrs & Tom Nolan, eds. Meanwhile There Are Letters: The Correspondence of Eudora Welty and Ross Macdonald. While I take issue with the way the book presents Margaret Millar, mostly by omission, I learned so much from reading the emotion-laden correspondence between these two authors, who became dear friends late in life, and who clearly loved and respected each other (and adored talking about books.) So it gets on the list because I still think about their letters so often, but I hope, fervently, once more, that Margaret Millar gets her story properly told.


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I'm keeping best-of links to a minimum around here, but Marilyn Stasio's is always worth taking a look at, especially as there are many other fine writers included. Also, President Obama's favorite book of 2015 was Lauren Groff's Fates and Furies, while Michelle Obama singled out Elizabeth Alexander's memoir Light of the World.

I love the Green Lady of Brooklyn.

RIP William McIlvanney, godfather of "Tartan Noir" and so much more.

Finally, something a little different from me: I wrote about black and white cookies for Men's Journal, because I love them so, and sometimes it's good to branch out from writing about books and crime. So let me leave you with a picture of one from one of my favorite bakeries, Joyce Bakeshop in Prospect Heights: