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‘A Death in Harlem’ is mystery with fun twist

Can reader help solve the crime?

Terri Schlichenmeyer OW Contributor | 9/26/2019, midnight

With a book in your hands, you can do almost anything.

Grab a cookbook and make a meal. Pick up a how-to book and fix a toilet. Take a trip to the past or the future, learn to knit, meet a new friend, you can do it with a book. Or, with a book like “A Death in Harlem” by Karla FC Holloway (2019, Northwestern University Press), you might solve a crime.

It was a rare day when Officer Weldon Thomas didn’t have reading material with him.

Even on assignment as Harlem’s first and only “colored” policeman, he carried a book because his assignments were light and he never knew when there’d be time to read. And that’s exactly what he was doing on that midwinter night in 1927 when guests at the Ninth Annual Opportunity Awards Banquet, an event he was policing, came screaming down the stairs of the Hotel Theresa. 

It didn’t take long for him to understand the problem. He saw for himself, right outside the hotel’s door: Beautiful storywriter Olivia Frelon lay on her back on the sidewalk, her red gown spilling around her as red blood spilled from her head. She was obviously dead, but what happened to make her fall from one of the hotel’s windows?

In the days following that night, everyone talked and most of them talked about Vera Scott. She and Olivia had been best friends; they did everything together and were like two halves of a whole although Olivia, with her light skin, could pass for a white woman. Was Vera jealous of that, or was the rumor true that Vera’s husband was sleeping with Vera’s best friend?  

Was that why everybody thought Vera pushed Olivia out the window?

New York’s finest wanted to get to the bottom of what looked like a crime, and since Officer Weldon Thomas expected his department’s overwhelmingly white officers to need him on this case, he was determined to help. He’d spent his whole life reading detective books from the Harlem Library. 

If Sherlock Holmes could solve crimes, Weldon could, too… 

Consisting of a basically wonderful little mystery and some delightfully sly winks at fans who love the genre, “A Death in Harlem” can present a bit of a struggle.

It begins on the story’s first page, with language that’s often more fit for academia but that’s mixed with Jazz-Age slang, stereotypical inner-city patter, and today’s modern terms, sometimes all in the same scene. If that doesn’t raise one eyebrow for you, this will: it seems as though half of Harlem 1927 is in this story, a populousness that feels particularly excessive when characters are referred to inconsistently. Author Karla FC Holloway tells a truly great story, but it’s told in a way that may make you scratch your head sometimes.

The best thing to do here, perhaps, then, is to give yourself time with this book; it would be a shame to miss the twisty-fun of “A Death in Harlem.” If you can lend it some patience, get it in your hands.