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Maxine Mei-Fung Chung's Top 5 Crime Books by Authors of Colour

Posted on 4th March 2021 by Anna Orhanen

In her electrifying debut The Eighth Girl, Maxine Mei-Fung Chung creates unforgettable protagonist Alexa Wu, whose life is constantly pushed, pulled and torn apart by her multiple personalities. Through Alexa, who must embark on a dangerous quest in London's seedy underworld to save her best friend, Chung's gripping narrative explores the darkest recesses of the human mind and society alike. 

In this exclusive piece, the author discusses diversity in crime, mystery and thriller fiction and shares her five favourite crime novels by authors of colour.

In a genre that has historically lacked diversity, there is an upswing of bold, necessary voices in the current landscape of crime, mystery and thriller fiction. Yet as I write this I maintain that we not get too comfortable — as writers, readers and publishers — because whilst there is a rise, there are still so few books published by authors of color in the crime arena, given how broad based and popular the genre is. Here are my top five choices of cool, criminal books by authors of color.

The Street by Ann Petry

Published by African American writer Ann Petry in 1946, The Street follows Lutie Johnson, a single mother of an eight-year-old boy, Bub, who faces social injustices in Harlem post World War 2. The book sold over one million copies and in my humble opinion deserves a place on the school curriculum. I read The Street in my late teens whilst attending community college and felt a deep connection to Lutie, a traditional woman at heart who has to put aside her dreams of a happy life. Instead, she is faced with a dark union with the father to her son coupled with poverty bought on by pernicious racism where she works as a housemaid. I have collected many copies of The Street over the years. One shows Lutie as a bombshell in a tight red dress, another with a turtleneck and trench coat, while a very early copy has Bub clinging to his mother’s legs. Lutie appears as if she is a woman about to do some serious partying, on her way to the office, about to warm a beaker of milk or take down anyone who dares to get in the way of her relationship with Bub, who unfortunately is not spared from racism and social injustice. Sadly, her mother love is no match for The Street. 

The Street is one of those beautiful, painful books that is as dark as it is disturbing; yet it is necessary and intriguing. Its social critique is clear and unflinching and its protagonist is fierce and loveable. And at the heart and belly of the story is an exploration about what it means to be human, with just enough hope for the reader to cling onto. 

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One of the pioneering novels of the Black female experience, Petry’s classic work centres on a young single-mother desperately trying to combat racial injustice and misogyny in 1940s New York, in order to build a better life for her son.
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Devil in a Blue Dress by Walter Mosley

Also first read whilst I was at community college. Ezekiel ‘Easy’ Rawlins (what a name!) is a war veteran turned ‘reluctant’ detective after he gets fired from his day job, and is story telling at its finest. In order to make the rent, Easy goes in search of the missing Daphne Monet and must rely on his sharp instincts to solve the case, and, his own life. With a host of colorful characters, Easy is by far one of my favorite hard-boiled crime protagonists. Devil in a Blue Dress is a masterlass in the contest of wills of lawman hero and outlaw opponent. 

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The disappearance of a young white woman in 1948 Los Angeles transforms down-on-his-luck labourer Ezekiel ‘Easy’ Rawlins into a razor sharp private investigator in this triumphant, award-winning first instalment in Walter Mosley’s bestselling series.
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Three-Fifths by John Vercher

My by far favorite read in 2020, Vercher’s exquisite debut takes us on a compelling journey with Bobby Saraceno, a biracial man, passing for white, who is forced to confront his past while living his truth in the present. A story about identity and secrets, Three-Fifths takes the time to ask important questions about racial discourse, and friendship. It is a story that leaves the reader questioning the measure of man, and was inspired by Vercher’s personal experience during his time as a student in Pittsburgh amidst the simmering racial tension produced by the L.A. riots. A must read for fans of hard-boiled crime. 

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Multi-layered and absorbing, Vercher’s sensational debut interrogates the toxic relationship between a Black man passing as white and his best friend - who has returned from prison a violent racist – with nuance, power and almost unbearable suspense.
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The Majesties by Tiffany Tsao

The Majesties is a haunting novel that is fresh, sharp and thrilling. The literary suspense story follows two sisters: Estella and Gwendolyn. Estella sets out and poisons, with the intention of killing, their entire family. Gwendolyn is the only survivor. Later, as Gwendolyn struggles to regain consciousness from a coma, she attempts to desperately retrace her memories and the events that lead to her sister’s brutal act. With such a great premise, journeying through the luxurious world of Indonesia’s rich and powerful, Tsao navigates great storytelling with a fresh take on the suspense genre. With a sizzling twist and a large cast of wonderfully realized characters The Majesties looks at the deep secrets that build a family empire, and the unveiling of them that will bring it crashing down. 

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The sole survivor of a familial tragedy sets out to uncover what led her sister to poison their entire family in this engrossing literary thriller, delving deep into the secrets that fester under the glimmering world of Indonesia’s powerful elite.
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Your House Will Pay by Steph Cha

Steph Cha is a writer with something to say. As an admirer of Cha’s previous novels: Follow Her Home, Beware, Beware and Dead Soon Enough, I was intrigued to read Your House Will Pay which is immediately recognizable to anyone who lived in the city during the traumatic period surrounding the 1992 riots. A native Angeleno, Cha writes a painful fictionalized account of the real life 1991 killing of Latasha Harlins, a 15-year-old girl who was shot by a Korean convenience store owner, just two weeks after the police beating of motorist Rodney King. Against this backdrop, two families, one African American, the other Korean American collide in a story of a city roiled by social injustice, introducing us to Grace Park and Shawn Matthews. As Grace battles confusion over her sister's estrangement from their Korean-immigrant parents, Shawn tries to help his cousin Ray readjust to a life after years spent in prison. Yet something in their past links these two families. As the city threatens to erupt into violence, echoing the worst days of the early 1990s, the lives of Grace and Shawn collide in ways that will change them forever. A powerful, and necessary novel with immaculate plotting and characterisation. 

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A huge word-of-mouth hit in the United States, Cha’s explosive novel takes an unflinching look at the second-generation immigrant experience in the long shadow of the Los Angeles race riots of the 1990s and the seething injustices of the present day.
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