Crime Fiction in the Civil Rights Era

Art Taylor, a critic and professor of English at George Mason University, has an article in the new issue of Mystery Scene magazine (with Marcus Sakey on the cover) about how crime and mystery novels addressed the Civil Rights Movement while it was happening. Both Taylor and the magazine are stingy about details online—in these tough economic times, “pay for the information you want, punk” is the new “information wants to be free”—but he sets up the issue nicely on his blog:

To some degree, my interest in these questions was prompted by the recent republication of Shepard Rifkin’s 1970 novel The Murderer Vine by Hard Case Crime — the first time in over 35 years that the book has been in print. As is their tradition, Hard Case Crime also chose to give the reissue a provocative and even slightly titillating cover, but the true event from which the story grew was nothing but serious — in fact, it was one of the pivotal moments in the evolution of the Civil Rights Era: the killing of three civil rights workers — James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner — in Mississippi during the Freedom Summer voter registration drive.

Hard Case Crime has made the first chapter of Rifkin’s novel available online:

A black man of about sixty began to climb the steps with a heavy old suitcase. Once inside, he gave his ticket to Ray, who didn’t wait till the old man could be seated. The bus started immediately and the old man was having trouble with his bulky suitcase in the narrow aisle, which was littered with boxes and shopping bags. It was obviously the bus used by country people to do their serious city shopping in. The old man paused and hesitated when he saw the cluttered aisle. There was an empty seat far in the rear, and there was an empty one beside me. I could almost see his thinking processes.

He would have to ask pardon of ten whites in order to get to the empty seat in the back. He would probably bang a few knees as well with his huge suitcase, and why go through all that humiliation when he could just sit beside me? He looked at me. The look said, Please, mister, are you gonna make a fuss if I sit beside you?

4 thoughts on “Crime Fiction in the Civil Rights Era

  1. I haven’t seen the new MYSTERY SCENE so I don’t know if Taylor touches upon it, but Dorothy B. Hughes’ final novel, THE EXPENDABLE MAN (1963) is particularly appropriate reading as well (the Rifkin novel’s pretty good, by the way.)

  2. I’d like to point out that Mystery Scene pays its contributors. To do that we have to make money, hence the whole “buy the magazine” idea.

    Anyway, Art Taylor’s article is definitely worth an investment. His in-depth discussion covers Room to Swing by Ed Lacey, The Color of Hate by Joe L. Hensley, In the Heat of the Night by John Ball, Cotton Come to Harlem by Chester Himes, and the Murderer Vine by Shepard Rifkin. There’s also a sidebar of other interesting Civil Rights Era novels and some recommended reference works.

    Kate Stine
    Editor, Mystery Scene

  3. Thanks, Kate. As a journalist and freelancer who likes paychecks, I’m a huge fan of paying contributors, so I don’t begrudge any publication that does what it needs to to make sure it makes money. I was being a little cute up there, but it wasn’t my intent to criticize paywalls.

  4. Just a quick note to Mark for including me here, to Kate for including me and praising my work (and yes, paying me, as she mentions above!) and to Sarah for the recommendation of The Expendable Man, which I’d not featured. My article mentions some great books, but I continue to find others that could also have been included and hope to continue some scholarship in this area in the future.

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