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Opening Doors for the Devil in a Blue Dress

June 19, 1996|DICK ADLER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When four black mystery writers gather in Beverly Hills on Thursday night to read and sign their books, the atmosphere is almost certain to be upbeat.

* Walter Mosley will read from "A Little Yellow Dog," his fifth book about Easy Rawlins.

* Gar Anthony Haywood, author of the Aaron Gunner detective series set in Watts and a lighter series about a retired couple named Loudermilk, seems due for a breakout.

* Gary Phillips, hailed as a tough new voice for his first Ivan Monk mystery, "Violent Spring," has followed up with "Perdition, USA."

* And Robert O. Greer, a forensic pathologist, university professor and literary review editor from Denver, has received a lot of advance notice for his first mystery, "The Devil's Hatband."

As these four bask in the deserved glow of the evening, it might be a good time to think of the black mystery writers who won't be there--the now largely invisible line of predecessors who set the table for today's honored guests and then backed quietly out of the room.

Readers of all races tend to think that the black mystery genre began with Chester Himes, who started writing during a seven-year prison stretch for armed robbery and created the Coffin Ed Johnson / Gravedigger Jones novels about two Harlem cops for Gallimard's aptly named Series Noire in Paris in the 1950s. The popular view is that there was then a 20-year hiatus until Walter Mosley hit the scene.

But before Himes came many others, as Paula L. Woods pointed out in "Spooks, Spies and Private Eyes: Black Mystery, Crime and Suspense Fiction of the 20th Century," the collection she edited last year for Doubleday.

There was Rudolph Fisher, whose 1932 book "The Conjure-Man Dies" was the first detective novel with a black hero. Fisher was a doctor, musician and writer who became part of the 1930s Harlem Renaissance; he died of cancer in 1934, at age 37.

George S. Schuyler, prolific author of serial mysteries for such newspapers as the Pittsburgh Courier, is best known for his 1931 satirical novel "Black No More." He worked as a journalist into his 70s and died at age 82 in 1977.

Sam Greenlee, born in Chicago in 1930, wrote "The Spook Who Sat by the Door" about a black CIA agent and sold it to the movies. He is reported to be living in Spain.

But still on the scene is John A. Williams, author of "The Man Who Cried I Am," a monumental thriller with implications that reverberate 30 years later. At 71 and retired from his longtime teaching job at Rutgers, these days he concentrates on catching trout on weekends in upstate New York.

Asked in a telephone interview how he feels about the black mystery writer as a hot commodity in today's literary market, he says graciously, "To see another generation getting all this attention now is terrific, very exciting. When I was growing up in the 1930s, I never heard of the Harlem Renaissance. I wasn't aware of it until I was out of college, long after it was over. So this current boom is great. I'd hate to think that I was part of something that ran out of steam a quarter-mile down the road."

Woods, who had many conversations with Williams while putting her book together, confirms that he seems not to harbor any hard feelings about his best book being out of print for almost 10 years (a 1985 edition from Thunder's Mouth Press is now in libraries) or that his name isn't often mentioned when the subject of black mystery writers is discussed.

"The only sad thing is that in the rush to acclaim a whole new group of writers, Williams has been overlooked," Woods says.

Williams was working as a correspondent for Newsweek and Holiday and spending a lot of time in Europe when he wrote "The Man Who Cried I Am," about a black American magazine writer named Max Reddick who inherits from a famous black novelist the secret of a U.S. government project called the King Alfred Plan--the forced removal of America's black population to concentration camps in the event of a "Minority Emergency." So realistic was his description of the document that many readers were sure it was based on something Williams had stumbled across in his journalistic career.

He insists that it was pure invention--just as he insists that the many shadowy characters in the novel who seem to be working for the CIA or the FBI weren't based on real people.

"If you were in Europe at the time, there were always people you suspected of working for the government," he says. "In the 1970s, Jesse Jackson even accused me of being an FBI informant. My lawyer made him issue a fast retraction, and when I tried to call him about it later he was never available.

"I wasn't trying to write a thriller or a mystery or a genre novel of any kind. I was just trying to write the best novel I could, in keeping with the times and based on all I knew about American history."

Harry Stein, who had been Williams' editor at Holiday, moved to Little, Brown and bought "The Man Who Cried I Am" for that staid Boston house in 1967.

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