5 Women of Color in Mystery on the Complex Histories of LA
By Nancy Jooyoun Kim
Often depicted as a playground for the rich, a city of movie and sports stars, muscle, and palm trees against spectacular sunsets, Los Angeles as a setting has long fascinated mystery readers with seedy and sensational stories that reveal the cruelties beneath the surfaces of such a dreamlike place. There is something tantalizing about the details of crime, mischief, and murder in a city as sunny and seductive as LA.
However, the LA I was born into was much more drab, polluted, and dull than what we often read of in books. As a Korean American kid trying to escape the doldrums of my working-class immigrant life, I grew up reading mostly American literature, the classics, from Edith Wharton to William Faulkner to James Baldwin. I felt alienated from the usual suspects of Chandler and Ellroy. I never read any genre books and stuck to literary novels until I took an African American Detective Fiction class as an undergraduate at UCLA. It was a kind of revelation on the genre and how it could speak to my everyday interests and sense of history and place. We read Walter Mosley and Chester Himes, the greats, and lesser known but groundbreaking writers such as Barbara Neely and Paula Woods.
Little did I know that women writers of color in my hometown of LA had written mysteries to explore the darkest human impulses and the corruption and failures of institutions while countering stereotypical depictions of women as objects of desire and pursuit. The women in these books were themselves brave and relentless, chasing the truth. My interests in Ethnic Studies, local history, and sociology and my love for literature intersected in these books where plot propelled readers through some of the most uncomfortable terrains, confronting issues such as racism, gentrification, sexism, and homophobia. Rather than render communities of color as siloes or mere metaphors and playgrounds for white protagonists, these five books reveal why communities of color exist for the people who live and work within them, how they intersect and overlap with each other, while shedding light on the limitations of our society at large.
Southland, Nina Revoyr
Effortlessly exploring a broad range of issues from gender and sexuality to institutionalized racism, while managing to be extraordinarily emotional and humane, Southland, published in 2003, is a contemporary classic of the literature of Los Angeles and race in America. After the unexpected death of her beloved Japanese American grandfather, protagonist Jackie Ishida, a UCLA law student, goes in full pursuit of what really happened on the day that four Black teenagers were murdered in her grandfather’s grocery store during the Watts Riots of 1965. The novel explores the horrors of systemic racism, from the internment of Japanese Americans to police misconduct and abuse in Black communities, while weaving together multiple love stories and a compelling narrative about a young woman’s search for her own identity and truth.
Dirty Laundry, Paula Woods
Woods writes compulsively readable and complex narratives that explore the layers of power and its many players within the city of Los Angeles. In Dirty Laundry, a fast-paced, gritty yet deeply-humane mystery, African-American homicide detective Charlotte Justice navigates a tight-knit Korean American community, the wider and flashier political world of LA, and the dangers of life in the LAPD while investigating the vicious murder of a young Korean American woman who is found bludgeoned and bound in LA’s Koreatown. Not only is Dirty Laundry a fascinating portrait of LA, crime, and politics in “multiethnic America” but it is also a deeply relatable exploration of the personal conflicts and unresolved stories that motivate the most driven and seemingly successful individuals, including Detective Justice herself.
Your House Will Pay, Steph Cha
Inspired by the murder of 15-year old African American Latasha Harlins by a Korean American shopkeeper named Soon Ja Du, one of the many tragedies and failures of the justice system leading to the 1992 LA Uprising, Cha’s latest novel weaves the stories of two families, the Matthewses and the Parks, both trying to make fresh starts after the traumatic event that unites them despite their disparate experiences and backgrounds. But the past proves in some ways cyclical and inescapable, leading to another shocking act of violence while exploring issues of race, incarceration, trauma, and the failures of both the system and individuals to right their wrongs.
Land of Shadows, Rachel Howzell Hall
Opening with the discovery of the body of a teenage girl hanging in the closet of a condo construction site in a rapidly gentrifying section of Black Los Angeles, Land of Shadows, published in 2014, examines the intersections of loss, personal and collective, the ways in which we attempt to leave behind the past, and how history, no matter how deeply buried, always manages to resurface itself. Driving a propulsive plot full of intrigue, diverse and memorable characters, and a brand-new Porsche purchased by a cheating husband, homicide detective Elouise “Lou” Norton enthralls with her no-nonsense intelligence, intuition, humor, and wit while navigating a complicated and often disappointing marriage and the loss of her sister, an unsolved and painful mystery enmeshed with the brutal immediacy of the crime at hand.
Eulogy for a Brown Angel, Lucha Corpi
In 1992, Chicana poet Lucha Corpi created the first-known Chicana detective in the mystery genre with this complex and riveting novel of political activism, elaborate transnational family histories, personal vendettas, and extra-sensory visions. After the gruesome discovery of a murdered boy on the street after a Chicano civil rights protest in 1970s Los Angeles, Gloria Damasco, driven by both psychic visions and her extraordinary compassion for the dead and those left behind in their wake, investigates on the border of obsession the death of the boy through decades, all the way to her hometown of Oakland, California, despite the many personal losses she endures along the way. Although the storyline and cast of characters at times seem to be inordinately varied and difficult to track, the poetic sensibility of the writing as well as the humaneness and complexity of Corpi’s focused examination of race and class in California, make for a surprisingly compelling, original, and haunting read.
Born and raised in Los Angeles, Nancy Jooyoun Kim is a graduate of UCLA and the University of Washington, Seattle. Her essays and short fiction have appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Guernica, NPR/PRI’s Selected Shorts, The Rumpus, Electric Literature, Asian American Writers’ Workshop’s The Margins, The Offing, and elsewhere. The Last Story of Mina Lee is her first novel.
Margot Lee’s mother, Mina, isn’t returning her calls. It’s a mystery to twenty-six-year-old Margot, until she visits her childhood apartment in Koreatown, Los Angeles, and finds her mother’s deceased body. The police rule it an open-and-shut case of accidental death, but Margot suspects otherwise when she learns that someone was with her mother the night she died. The discovery sends Margot digging through the past, unraveling the tenuous and invisible strings that held together her single mother’s life as a Korean War orphan and an undocumented immigrant. Slowly, Margot begins to realize how little she truly knew about her mother.
Interwoven with Margot’s present-day search is Mina’s story of her first year in Los Angeles as she struggles to outrun the demons of her past and navigate the promises and perils of the American myth of reinvention. Barely earning a living by stocking shelves at a Korean grocery store, the last thing Mina ever expects is to fall in love. But that love story sets in motion a string of events that have profound consequences for years to come, leading up to the truth of what happened on the night of her death.