I’ve already shared the series that made me realize I wanted to write mysteries. Now, I want to share the books that made me realize I could write mysteries: the Tamara Hayle novels by Valerie Wilson Wesley.
I don’t remember exactly how Ms. Hayle came into my life. When Death Comes Stealing was published in 1994, so it had to have been high school, which conveniently was smack dab in the middle of my growing mystery novel obsession. I do remember that it had all the things I loved about Kinsey Millhone. And Spenser. And V.I. Warshawski.
Lone-wolf private investigator? Check.
Distinct first-person narrative? Check.
Hometown as a character? Check.
Interesting, yet personal case? Check.
Like I said, it had a lot in common with my favorites. But it’s what it didn’t have in common that made all the difference.
You see, Tamara Hayle was a black chick from Northern New Jersey. I, too, happen to be a black chick from Northern New Jersey. Here’s the thing: I love reading books and seeing different worlds, whether it’s Spenser’s Boston, V.I.’s Chicago or Kinsey’s Santa Teresa.
But thanks to Tamara Hayle, I learned that there’s nothing like reading a book and seeing my world. It was nice to recognize locations (East Orange! The Ironbound! Garden State Parkway!). But it was even nicer to have Tamara’s hair stylist namedrop products like Ultra Sheen. Spenser might see the name and think we were talking about how you look after a workout with Henry and Hawk. Tamara, however, knew exactly what her stylist was talking about. And so did I.
It’s no secret that black mystery novels aren’t exactly a booming industry. Black mystery writers are even harder to find. I recently connected with a fellow black mystery writer on Facebook and the first thing she wrote on my wall was, “It’s like seeing a unicorn.” She didn’t need to say any more. I knew exactly what she meant.
If you want to read a mystery with a black main character, especially a black female main character, you have to seek it out. It’s easy to think that we may not exist at all. But thanks to Valerie Wilson Wesley and Tamara Hayle, I realized from an early age that black mystery writers actually do, in fact, exist.
I’m still not sure about unicorns.