Hey guys! It’s Annie again, and you know Friday means another New Classics. I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s noticed the newfound importance of diversity in the mystery genre, and how that’s making these stories scarier than ever, so let’s chat about it here!
The only thing I love as much as reading is watching a good movie. And there’s almost nothing that brings us into the world of murder mystery like watching a horror blockbuster, filling the screen in front of you as you silence your phone, take your seat in a red velvet row, and dig your hand into some popcorn.
The last couple of times I’ve really felt like dropping $15 on a movie ticket was really worth it were both, coincidentally, when I walked to the local theater to see Jordan Peele’s most recent masterpieces, Get Out and Us.
Peele’s films are designed to put us in an uncomfortable place. Horror so often operates from the fear of the truth, from situations that are so close to reality it hurts. Daughters getting kidnapped, sons getting murdered–these gruesome scenes fill screens with classic tropes of petrified young women and suspenseful music. But, again, Jordan Peele is innovating this age-old genre, populating it with diverse faces and using backgrounds of these new bodies to inform his narrative.
In Get Out, a young black man is welcomed to the property of his white girlfriend’s family. On the way there, she insists that they aren’t racist, that he has nothing to worry about, that they’ll love him despite his skin tone. Signs begin to pop up that warn him black folks might not be safe on this plantation-like spread of land. And a fellow black man he meets there raises red flags for him when he talks in stunted sentences, obediently obeying commands and suggestions, while denying any history outside of the here and now. It is the story of erasure, of the perils of invisibility and quiet racism, symptoms of a larger maliciousness aiming at extinction.
In Us, we watch a young girl wander into a fun house mirror and come out so different than she was before. She and her family find themselves in a hellish universe where the Hands Across America challenge brings a second breed, a reflected human race up from the underworld. A retelling of the quintessential American shame, a shadow of the subjugated race, an underground network operating out of control of the world colonizers settled above it.
Watching both of these films, it becomes intensely clear the effect that American politics and a modern bigotry have on the plot of suspense. And, like I said, in a genre that tortures your sense of reality, you must constantly find new wells of fear. These are the scariest things of our time: a silent undercurrent of elimination, a racism that speaks free and loud once it’s given a covert disguise.
And, as we avid readers know, the trend of the written word must precede the films we watch. In the past couple years, we’ve found ourselves in a flood of new fiction, new mystery centered around cultural dialogues that revisit the meaning of fear. Freak accidents fall to the wayside in favor of honest situations. Victim invisibility, institutional racism, empowered characters of color serving as protagonists in the face of it all. That’s the new horror, the new murder, the new fear.
In the literary world, the first book I want to tell you about was sent to us at Art + Deco a while ago by its publisher, Counterpoint Press, and I’ve been chomping at the bit to tell you guys about it! I absolutely tore through it when I first read it, and now that the release date is finally coming up, you can get your hands on it, too. This coming Tuesday, July 30th, Kalisha Buckhanon is coming out with an amazing mystery novel called Speaking of Summer. The story begins with the disappearance of Autumn Spencer’s twin sister, Summer, who walks into a cold winter night to never be seen again. As Autumn tries, to no avail, to stimulate some response from the authorities, she is faced with total, disgusting indifference, in a modern moment where the disappearance of black women grows hauntingly commonplace. Autumn and those close to her find themselves at the epicenter of a storm of dismissal, watching names and stories of murdered women multiply in front of their eyes. The story moves swiftly and strongly through tropes of urban peril and victim invisibility, forced gaslighting and glimmers of hope that may or may not come to fruition.
Another amazing mystery The Widows of Malabar Hill by Sujata Massey takes place in 1920s India, centering on Bombay’s premier law firm. Perveen studies under her father to become India’s first and only female lawyer. She is a powerhouse, with an Oxford degree and a deep bloodline pulsing with power. She takes on a case regarding the unsettled will of three Muslim widows, which turns suspicious, then murderous. She becomes responsible for illuminating the history of Malabar Hill, decoding a past which folds itself into her own tragedies. It is a torrential tale of a culturally encoded mystery, with Perveen’s identity as a woman in the masculine industry of early Indian law. Its modern retelling drips with intrigue that simply couldn’t exist outside of this world Massey shows us.
Finally, you must get your hands on a copy of Star of the North by D.B. John. In this story, a Korean American teenager visiting South Korea is abducted, uprooted and brought to North Korea by agent operatives from the government. She goes undetected for twelve years as her sister searches worldwide for her, torn by the ethereal memory of her twin. Her story is paralleled by two North Korean narratives, all weaving together in the end to form a cohesive braid of unexpected entanglements. The mystery carries your eyes across the page; your thumbs gravitate to turn to the next; you cannot put it down. And, of course, the modern tensions color the tale with a looming sense of foreshadowing, a story of the 90s that maps too clearly onto the present day.
These stories are completely novel, a building block of the mystery genre that we didn’t realize was missing until it emerged in the modern era at full force. This is the direction that mystery must take us: an investigative journey into the perils of intolerance, an intersection of suspicion and truth.
I’m Annie, a recent UC Berkeley grad and publicity intern here at Art + Deco Agency. I’ll be your resident blogger, chatting with and about emerging voices in the literary industry and getting you started on your summer reading list. Catch me here every Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday!