I’ve been reading or considering the list of books highlighted by author Mike Phillips in the programme he presented in May of this year for BBC Radio4, ‘In For The Kill’ . Through a careful selection of novels (six) the programme traced the emergence of modern crime fiction by black British (origin or resident) authors through 22 years of recent history.
For Phillips, a resonant starting point for crime fiction lay with American author Chester Himes, whose series featuring the detectives, Cofin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones, saw the light of publishing day as, ‘A Rage in Harlam’ back in 1959.
According to Phillips, for crime fiction that reflected the latter-day lives of black characters in Britain, we had to wait a while, and it came in the shape of his first novel ‘Blood Rights’ (1989).
This reminded me of my earlier attempts to put a trace on ‘Urban’ Fiction genre through two editorials, ‘In 1992 Urban Fiction Began', and, ‘The Fiction That Urban Forgot’ (Dec 2005). In reference to which, recently I came across an interesting article by Omar Tyree article, ‘An Urban "Street Lit" Retirement’, and author commentary.
As the programme progressed, meandering its way around the six books, and interviews with authors, to me it was clear that Phillips was less than impressed by the lack of strides that had been made in towards expanding out the genre, so that it might portray fictional black detectives as self-assured, authoritative figures, turning their skills and experience towards investigating crime amongst the multi-cultural main stream. Acknowledging Dreda Say Mitchell’s popularity and fan base for instance, Phillips says, ‘but for me, there’s no big surprise in stories about young delinquents in East London.’
To be honest, I found little to challenge perceptions in his own 1989 novel ‘Blood Rights’; though Samson Dean is a Black journalist who reluctantly finds himself becoming a full-scale private investigator for a politician with profile- it slowly becomes apparent that the thugs hell bent on any-means-necessary are young black men. The people our hero ‘Dean’ works for are clearly not the people he lives amongst, though this is strangely at odds with the character’s patterns of speech which make his origins and connections hard to fathom.
One author in whose work Phillips did find hope was Nicola Williams. Having now read her 1998 novel, I can see why – it’s main protagonist is a female barrister, Lee Mitchell, who despite her rising reputation and clear professionalism, is wrong footed by her eagerness to take centre stage in a high profile trial. The novel is not afraid to show the human weakness of its otherwise competent main character; and places her firmly in a world like ours, that is to say one of ambiguity and diverse cultural dimensions.
It’s the burden of representation (James Baldwin) argument revisited in ways – does the author have a responsibility to portray, educate and challenge or simply to engage and entertain. Isn’t the representation of life as you see it around you bound to be more appealing to readers, than a book through which the author seeks to comment on the unevenness of society?
I think the last word from the programme should go to Nicola Williams, “write what you like but don’t write in stereo-types.”The six books featured were:
Blood Rights (1989), Mike Phillips
Yardie (1992), Victor Headley
Without Prejudice (1998), Nicola Williams
My Once Upon a Time (2000), Diran Adebayo
Snakeskin (2002), Courttia Newland
Running Hot (2004), Dreda Say Mitchell
© Khome, November 2011 (all rights reserved)