Chester Himes was not the first black crime or detective novelist, or the first with a black detective. Rudolph Fisher (1897 – 1934), below right, an African-American, holds that distinction, for a little-known classic of the Harlem Renaissance, The Conjure-Man Dies (1932), which featured a black police detective and a black policeman who investigate the disappearance of African king N’Gana Frimbo in Harlem. In fact all characters in the novel are black. Fisher graduated from Brown University and went on to become an accomplished doctor, but he died during stomach surgery at age 37.
At about the same time that Chester Himes was first publishing in France, Leonard Zinberg, a white writing under the pseudonym “Ed Lacy,” created a black detective named Toussaint Moore in Room to Swing (Harper, 1957) and Moment of Untruth (Lancer, 1964). 19 These novels and Himes’ paved the way for Ernest Tidyman‘s seven novels on black detective John Shaft between 1970 and 1975. 20 Tidyman also wrote the screenplay for The French Connection (1971) and the novel High Plains Drifter (1973). However, the Shaft series eventually degenerated into the “blackspoitation” movies of the late 1970s, which celebrated pimps, platform shoes and velvet lounge décor. The black detective novel was rescued by Walter Mosley in the 1980s.
Today not only Walter Mosely, but Gar Anthony Haywood and Gary Phillips are expanding the universe of black detective fiction. Most recently Paula Woods has brought the African-American LA sleuth novel full circle, introducing black LAPD Detective Charlotte Justice (Inner City Blues , Stormy Weather , Dirty Laundry , and Strange Bedfellows ).