My love for detective stories started early, and it started on television with characters like Columbo, Kojak, Rockford. Not a woman in the bunch. A Black woman? Please! That is until 1974, when Get Christie Love! premiered. Remember her? Anyone?
Christie was a breath of fresh air, but a little anemic. The fault, however, wasn’t hers—it was 1974’s. Mr. Whipple was still squeezing the Charmin back then, and women who worked in the home were hawking goop to get rid of that waxy buildup.
I remember one scene where our jive-talking heroine faces off against a marauding motorcycle gang, its scuzzy leader taunting her with bike chains. Christie’s cool, though, and stands there trash-talking, daring the guy to do his worst. She’s been killing the case up until then, taking all the risks, but just when she’s about to nab the gang, she’s overpowered, and a man has to save her hash.
On television, women detectives were a sight for sore eyes, but that didn’t mean that Hollywood was ready for them to be fully functioning or that gender stereotypes had changed. The fact that Christie was Black was a great leap forward, too, but the typical last-scene, Helpless Helen act played out, nonetheless.
And it wasn’t just Christie; Pepper Anderson on Police Woman couldn’t save herself either. In the last eight minutes of every episode, the bad guy would knock Pepper’s gun out of her hands or corner her on a rooftop, and her team would have to rush in to save her from an undignified death.
Women detectives we got. Self-saving women detectives we would have to wait a bit longer for. But Christie and Pepper, stymied as they were, planted the seed that would later grow into my own Black detective, Cass Raines.
Christie’s tag line, “Beauty, brains... and a badge,” said a lot. It sounded cool in 1974. It sounds hella sexist now.
I scoured the bookstores back then looking for books with Black women detectives. I didn’t find them. Instead, I discovered authors like Mickey Spillane and Raymond Chandler. I also found Chester Himes. So, I stepped into their characters’ shoes. They were better than nothing.
It was almost another decade before a cool wave of women crime writers arrived, and not one of their formidable characters had to wait around for the sound of police sirens. This time, the shoes fit a little better.
It was 10 more years before Black women detectives written by Black women crime writers emerged. These characters were amateur sleuths and PIs and police detectives, and, finally, I had characters who looked like me. I didn’t have to reimagine Nancy Drew or squeeze myself into Poirot’s shiny leather shoes. Barbara Neely, Eleanor Taylor Bland, Valerie Wilson Wesley, Grace F. Edwards, Paula L. Woods, and Penny Mickelbury brought the thunder. Suddenly, in the ’90s, there was Blanche White, Marti MacAllister, Tamara Hayle, Charlotte Justice, Carole Ann Gibson, and Mali Anderson. I knew these characters, I got these characters, they felt like home, and the shoes fit perfectly.
These characters were deeper than Christie—more authentic. Talented women of color were writing complicated, thoughtful, intelligent women of color, and I was there for it. These writers added to the page the fullness of diverse women’s voices, following in the footsteps of the women detectives of a decade earlier. They brought in family, community life, and social issues as strong elements in their stories. It was about the crime, but it wasn’t only about the crime. It was also about representation.
The second-best part? Not one got tied to the tracks like an imperiled Pauline. Nobody knocked Marti MacAllister’s gun out of her hand. I gave Cass all that complexity. Cass would navigate through her book world like women of color have always navigated the real one: boldly, fiercely, unapologetically. She would catch the killer and pull her own fat out of the fire.
I am now, I’m happy to say, in league with a host of talented contemporaries—writers just like me, who’ve walked through the door these pioneering authors have held open for us. We see Christie Love and Pepper Anderson and raise them a Juniper Song, a Charlie Mack, a Grayson Sykes, a Lily Wong, an Ellie Rush, and a Dayna Anderson. Check them out at the Crime Writers of Color website.
So, long story short, women detectives of color are here, but you won’t find some last-chapter rescue scene. Why? Because 21st-century book women, and the women who write them, don’t roll that way.
Beauty, brains, a badge... and a healthy dose of badass. That’s how you do it, Pepper.