The mysteries of Black writers

Gregg Reese | 10/17/2012, 5 p.m.

The detective is arguably as much a cultural icon as the cowboy in the pantheon of American mythology. The offspring of myriad traditions both home-grown and abroad, the detective matured in the wake of the Depression by writers voicing the public's erosion of faith in the established institutions meant to bind the fabric of society.

As with most modes of artistic expression, African American scribes penned their own stories influenced by their particular experiences in much the same way as the Jazz and Blues music being crafted during the early 20th century. Writers making these first, fledgling steps were the Jamaican W. Adolphe Roberts, who published the 1926 mystery "The Haunting Hand," and physician-turned-novelist Rudolph Fisher, who introduced the first Black detective and was also a contributor to the Harlem Renaissance.

Many of these thrillers came to be known collectively as "hard-boiled," containing copious amounts of violence and the occasional seasoning of sex.

Over time, an offshoot of this genre evolved called noir [French for black] fiction, which added an aura of fatalistic gloom to its basic foundation of carnage, crime and sex. Los Angeles writer Gary Phillips, a contemporary standard bearer of this tradition, explains the central figures of these tales:

"By definition a noir hero or antihero, most often, is a doomed character. It's a man or woman who wants something, obsesses on some person or thing like a certain amount of money, and will do crooked things to get what they want. They don't necessarily see themselves as a villain, but are consumed by their desire. The hard-boiled detective seeks justice, often on a small scale."

Either in celluloid or print, these protagonists stand out because they are likely to be on either side of the law. The focal point of the story may generally be of a criminal nature, but the personalities hovering around it can come from myriad walks of life. The central character is often an opportunistic hustler, the hapless drifter, the combat- hardened service man making awkward attempts to fit back into civilian life, a newspaper reporter peripheral to the nefarious events, a victim of circumstance, or perhaps the most time-worn noir cliché, the private investigator.

The writing was cross-fertilized by the comparatively new medium of film, especially detective thrillers featuring the likes of George Raft and Edward G. Robinson, and augmented by the skills of European filmmakers uprooted by the Nazi menace sweeping their homeland. These artisans came to Hollywood steeped in the tradition of German Expressionism, manifested by the odd camera angles, ominous lighting and shadows, and other visual cues that added to the dark and brooding atmosphere distinctive of motion pictures from this era.

The genre was boosted by the end of World War II, which gave French critics the chance to once again enjoy the Hollywood movies denied them. Enamored of the radical stylistic departure from previous American pictures, these critics coined a name for these dark representations of society's underbelly: "black film," which in translation is film noir.