Monday, June 15, 2020

Literary Racism

As a reaction to the closure of libraries during the COVID-19 pandemic, I've been re-reading some of my extensive collection of classic detective stories, collected over most of my adult life.  Specifically, I've been re-reading Ellery Queen novels, which I've read off and on for most of my adult life.  In recent years I've been exploring new mystery writers at the local library, but that stopped with the shutdown, so I returned to what I had.

The Ellery Queen novels debuted in 1929 with The Roman Hat Mystery and continued into the early 1960s, after which the authors, Frederick Dannay and Manfred B. Lee, also allowed other writers to create Ellery Queen novels which didn't feature their detective, Ellery Queen, as a character.  Most of the novels and stories I've been reading were written in the 1930s.

Given the Black Lives Matter protests over the last few weeks, I'm unusually sensitive to racism.  I didn't think of Ellery Queen novels as racist, but I notice that while the Ellery Queen character almost never uses racial slurs, the New York City cops who feature in many stories do.  This includes the character Inspector Richard Queen, Ellery's father.  I especially noticed the use of the phrase "the shine" to refer to what a more educated person would probably have called "the Negro."  This was well before the use of phrases like black, African American, or people of color.  I also noticed that even when not using racist slang, descriptions of Negro characters, such as hotel maids, were condescending at best.

You can't go back and change history, or classic novels.  In fact I've seen much worse racism in "tough guy" detective novels by Raymond Chandler and  Mickey Spillane.  I think the explanation has to be that some people in the 1930s talked that way, and the authors put it in for realistic effects.  I still think the Ellery Queen novels are worth reading for the amazing logical puzzles they present.  I've always preferred puzzle mysteries to the shoot-em-up types.


  1. We might like to rewrite history, or somehow change peoples' attitudes in a time when things were different. This is what I think the word "presentism" means--wanting to measure the behavior and events of previous times through the lens of our own beliefs and points-of-view. It's a fun pastime, to condemn ancestors or historical figures for their naivite, or their backward thinking. 99% of religious myth is nonsense, but we make many generous excuses for it, simply out of politeness and convenience. Raymond Chandler is neight better nor worse than his prejudices, or the context of his time. He was simply a wonderful writer. It's perfectly possible for horrible people to make great art, just as it's likely that very nice people may have nothing more to offer the world except a smile and a handshake. It's a fallacy, that art from the past must pass this test, or that what people may have done in their personal lives should be used as evidence against what they accomplished.

    1. I agree with you, we can't go back and change what history was and what people did then. I think I even said that. I was merely interested in the way I noticed the racism, in books I've been reading for fifty years or so, in a way I don't recall doing so strongly. This post was about Ellery Queen, who is no no way the only or the worst offender.

      I do disagree that we "make many generous excuses" for religious myth "out of politeness and convenience." I stopped doing that when I was about 12 and realized that the entire Old Testament was a set of rules for the life of a tribe of patriarchal herders which was now viewed as The Word of God, by people who didn't even follow the religion of the patriarchal herders.