by Dene Dryden. Originally published in the Oct. 2019 edition of Live Ideas. Find it here.
Rachel Howzell Hall’s Land of Shadows and its sequels make up a fairly new addition to the black detective fiction genre, published and set in 2014. Elouise “Lou” Norton is a black, female homicide detective in Los Angeles who is assigned to a murder case that bears a resemblance to her sister’s childhood disappearance in many ways. Throughout the novel, she and her partner Colin Taggert uncover evidence that links to both the present murder case and her sister’s mystery. Lou Norton’s story goes on in three subsequent novels — Skies of Ash (2015), Trail of Echoes (2016), and City of Saviors (2017) — carving out a big stake in modern iterations of the aforementioned genre of black detective fiction.
In considering the place of the first novel, Land of Shadows, within the genre, we could consider how Lou fits into the role of a black detective as defined by Stephen Soitos and Nicole Décuré. In his book The Blues Detective: A Study of African American Detective Fiction, Soitos defines the four main tropes of black detective fiction as the alteration of the detective persona, double consciousness, black vernaculars, and hoodoo (27). Décuré further defines the black female detective in her essay “In Search of our Sisters’ Mean Streets: The Politics of Sex, Race, and Class in Black Women’s Crime Fiction,” particularly overlapping Soitos’ ideas of the alteration of the detective persona, expanding into the impact of the detectives’ personal relationships.
It turns out that Land of Shadows does not line up perfectly with the tropes that Soitos outlines, and I attribute most of these differences to Land of Shadows being a postrace piece of literature. Ramón Salvídar states in “Speculative Realism and the Postrace Aesthetic in Contemporary American Fiction” that postrace literature breaks away from typical black/white tropes, and “the new generation of writers sees race differently, as an open-source document, a trope with infinite uses.” Though race is still a relevant social identifier in America today, characters in postrace stories are not controlled or constrained by traditional representations of their race, offering a broader means to define and express race — their self-definitions of .
Since the elements of postrace literature fill in what is missing from Soitos’ outline of the black detective genre in this novel, it is apparent that Land of Shadows is simultaneously a work of black detective fiction and the postrace aesthetic. It fuses the elements of both genres, offering a new, updated definition of what a fictional black detective is in modern literature, prompting a need to update the typical signposts of the black detective genre to include modern modes of writing about race, such as the postrace form.
Land of Shadows fits into Soitos’ first trope of black detective fiction: the alteration of the detective persona. In the genre as a whole, black writers have borrowed some tropes of classical and hardboiled detective works (which feature predominantly white and male protagonists), but they have also “forged new images of the detective based on African American needs” (Soitos The classical, hardboiled, and “blues” detectives share a “relentless pursuit of the truth” and a focus on “figuring out the puzzle of human behavior in relation to a crime” (29).
Lou personifies these values; after her sister’s childhood disappearance, she sets herself on a career path that leads to her current position as a homicide detective for the Los Angeles Police Department. She is determined to find out what happened to her sister Tori, working in and around her hometown area, and when the Monique Darson case opens at the beginning of the novel, certain aspects of that murder point Lou in the direction of solving her own sister’s case.
One key difference that occurs between white and black detectives is the level of involvement in those characters’ personal lives. The traditional white detective is aloof, lonely, not well attached to anyone. For the black detective, it is common that they are “intimately connected to their surroundings, often involved in family relations, certainly deeply committed to exploring the meaning of blackness in the text” (Soitos 31). Lou certainly applies to this concept, as her personal relationships are well-explored in the novel. Décuré’s essay provides more specific classifications for female detectives’ personal relationships, including mothers, children, female friends, and men.
Lou has a somewhat strained relationship with her mother. Décuré writes that “the role played by the detectives’ mothers” can affect them “positively or negatively,” and from what readers see in Land of Shadows, there are elements of both (6). In Chapter 24, Lou and Colin talk about their personal lives. Tori’s disappearance is brought up, and Colin asks Lou if Tori is the reason she joined the LAPD. In her thoughts, she explains that she was headed toward a career in law, and after failing the bar exam, she decided to join the police force. “Mom had not been thrilled with my decision and days passed before she started talking to me again. ‘Why am I supposed to be happy about this? Because now my other daughter will be taken away from me?’” (Hall 145). Later on, Lou and her mother meet for breakfast on the anniversary of Tori’s disappearance. Her mother is critical of Lou, blaming her for her husband Greg’s infidelity and asking her if they are trying to have a baby. She is also upset that, upon reading the newspaper, Lou had not told her that she was investigating a case involving Napoleon Crase, who they suspect caused Tori’s disappearance (163-165). Lou is frustrated with those accusations, but they find common ground as Lou explains that she is working hard to solve both Monique Darson’s and Tori’s cases.
The next subcategory that Décuré defines is children. For most black female detectives, children “do not come first” and “do not cramp the style of the detectives who can rely on other people for help (a husband, friends) when they have to pursue murders” (8). Children have not come first for Lou, as she does not have any after eleven years of marriage. However, her mother brings up pregnancy when they meet for breakfast, and getting pregnant is also mentioned when Lou visits with her friend and freelance journalist Syeeda at the crime scene. Syeeda asks if Lou has stopped taking her birth control, to which she responds with a no. “‘It’s your Spidey senses, you know. They’re tingling and warning you not to procreate with this man,’” Syeeda says (Hall 119). We can infer that Lou may not want a child at this time (or any time), but she feels some pressure to have a child in order to save her marriage, something Syeeda advises her not to do: “‘[H]aving a baby to save your marriage is like a sailor fixing that rip on the Titanic with needle and thread’” (119).
Syeeda and another woman, Lena, appear regularly throughout the novel as some of Lou’s closest friends. Décuré explains that “[w]hen the detective’s mother is absent, friends feature as all-important.” Though Lou is in contact with her mother, her female friends bring her advice, stimulating conversation, and laughter. There are several instances when Lou meets or talks with Syeeda and/or Lena. In fact, Lena is introduced on the first page of the novel, as she is at a Krav Maga class with Lou. Lou has to pause her training when she receives the phone call that introduces the Monique Darson case. Lena brings humor to this serious moment—she is obviously flirting with the male trainer—but then offers support when Lou appears shaken by her phone call. “But his words must have spooked me—Lena had abandoned sexy Avarim to come stand beside me. Big brown eyes wide with worry, she touched my wrist and whispered, ‘You okay?’” (Hall 14). These close friendships are most important and noticeable after Lou confirms that Greg is cheating on her whilst in Japan, and she receives consolation and support from Syeeda and Lena as they talk about Greg (negatively), discuss other hot men, and eat comfort food (279).
Décuré writes that men in the lives of black female detectives “do not play a great role” and can “come under several categories,” one of which is the “no-good ex-husbands” (9). Lou’s husband Greg fits this role best; he is out of the country for the entire novel on a work trip and cheats on Lou while he is there. Lou suspects his infidelity during the trip throughout the book, remembering his record of cheating on previous business trips along with a call to Greg’s hotel room phone answered by an unknown woman (Hall 152). Though her strained relationship with Greg ebbs and flows in relevance throughout the novel, it is not Lou’s priority in the story.
Land of Shadows and its main character fit well into Soitos’ first trope of the “blues” detective and Décuré’s expanded genre-specific definition on personal relationships. However, with Soitos’ next category, double consciousness, Lou does not quite fit the mold. Soitos defines double consciousness as a result of “the nature of American racism,” and it “forces black Americans to the see the world filtered through two levels of consciousness. … They are forced to see themselves as second-class citizens by reason of their African ancestry, both biological and cultural. Then and only then are they allowed the privilege of seeing themselves as American citizens” (33).
Through this double lens, Soitos states that this worldview carries over into black literature and other forms of expression and art. Therefore, it would be expected of Lou to be more aware of her identity as a black person. There are instances where she recognizes her identity; in Chapter 2, she recalls having coffee with Colin on his first day at the LAPD, and knowing that he came from the white suburbs of Colorado Springs, she decided to dispel some assumptions he may have made about her as a black woman. “‘I’m sassy, but not Florence-the-Jeffersons’-maid sassy. Nor am I ultrareligious. I’m sure as hell not an earth mother, so there’s that to remember, too’” (Hall 18).
Later on, Colin asks Lou to take him to the bar where the other LAPD cops drink and chat off-duty. She says no, aware that Colin’s acceptance into that friendly space would take less effort for him than it did for her because of her identities. “I had combated sexism, racism, classism, and jerkwadism, and had finally earned my stripes. So, I had no sympathy for a new fish who had an up on me in three of those four categories” (140).
Though Lou has these moments of self-awareness of her identities and how they are perceived by others, double consciousness is not a common element in her thoughts or dialogue. In a way, she is totally aware of her blackness and her identity as a woman to such a degree that it is almost unconscious. She knows who she is, but she does not see the world through a black/white dynamic. This absence of double consciousness, I believe, is a product of the postrace literature aesthetic. Hall presents Lou and how she views herself and others in terms of race in a way that provides “a new way of conceiving what ‘race’ is and has been all along,” but not going so far as to infer that Lou has “‘gone beyond’ race” (Speculative Realism).
This postracial form of character expression and the relevancy of race bleeds into how Land of Shadows fits into Soitos’ third trope of the “blues” detective: black vernaculars. He states that “[b]lack detective authors use vernaculars to stress the importance of black culture in their texts” (38). Lou does engage somewhat in some vernaculars specific to her racial identity, but the use of her typical “black” speech and interests are not specifically used to enhance the fact that she is black. For example, in Chapter 18, Lou and Colin interrogate one of Monique Darson’s romantic partners, Derek Hester, a black man who lives in the poorer, gang-ridden part of Los Angeles that Lou grew up in. Lou leads the investigation, knowing exactly how to joke around with Derek and help him focus and be calm around them. “[Derek] laughed. ‘You got jokes, too.’ ‘Wednesdays and Thursdays only,’ I said, doing anything to make him—and his Rottweiler—relax” (Hall 108). Colin absolutely serves as a foil to Lou and Derek’s black identities; his questions put Derek on the defensive, as he interprets Colin’s questions as racially biased. When Lou employs a black vernacular to help relate to and get information from Derek, it is for the purpose of gathering evidence, not self-expression.
This strategic use of traditional black vernaculars demonstrates that Land of Shadows fits into the postrace aesthetic by defining Lou and her black identity in a different way. It is an example that not all black Americans share the same heritage, modes of expression, or other vernaculars, so therefore Lou’s vernacular may not be explicitly “black” in a traditional sense. Salvídar recognizes personal portrayals of race, like Lou’s, in “The Second Elevation of the Novel: Race, Form, and the Postrace Aesthetic in Contemporary Narrative.” He states that “views are changing from formerly held essentialist notions of biological races to more complex understandings of race as an element of human experience …” (2, emphasis mine). With this flexible understanding of race and identity, Lou does have a black vernacular that comes through her dialogue as an individual, but not specifically in the sense of a shared, static black vernacular that Soitos uses in his definition of the black detective fiction genre.
The final trope of Soitos’ “blues” detective is hoodoo practices and tradition. He defines hoodoo, also known as voodoo, as a term to “represent indigenous, syncretic religions of African Americans in the New World, expanding the term to suggest that it also represents alternative worldviews of some black Americans” (42). The hoodoo tradition is the one part of Soitos’ heuristic that Land of Shadows does not fit in. Lou disconnected herself from having an “ultrareligious” or “earth mother” identity early on in the novel, and she is not particularly religious at all (Hall 18). There is a moment where she prays before seeing Monique Darson’s body for the first time—“As I reached out to touch the doorknob, I muttered a quick prayer. ‘Please help me to see.’”—but her religious identity and/or spiritual beliefs are not pivotal parts of her personality and identity (24). This lack of emphasis on a religious identity, namely one connected with hoodoo, could be attributed to the postrace aesthetic as a different way of expressing Lou’s identity as a black person and the unique forces that influence her, but I chalk this absence of hoodoo beliefs up to the novel’s modernity. Rachel Howzell Hall belongs to a younger, more modern generation of writers with which Salvídar aligns the postrace aesthetic with, noting that these writers were born “a decade or two after the heroic period of the Civil Rights struggle,” and they know that time not as a memory, but as a history (Speculative Realism). They are living in a time when society as a whole thinks about race differently than it did before the 1960s. This means that Hall and other postrace authors are more separated from historical black American traditions like hoodoo beliefs. The cultural significance of hoodoo has been diluted through time and changing views on race and identity in America, so it follows that Lou is not influenced by hoodoo beliefs in 2014.
Land of Shadows fits perfectly into Soitos’ first black detective trope, the alteration of the detective persona, especially when we supplement Décuré’s ideas on the relevance of personal relationships. The tropes of double consciousness and black vernaculars apply somewhat to Hall’s novel, but the novel does not fit comfortably into those parts of the heuristic. As for Soitos’ last trope, hoodoo is a puzzle piece that does not even belong to the Land of Shadows puzzle set whatsoever. These deviations from the traditional black detective novel form are present because this novel is a piece of postrace literature, and Salvídar’s definition of “postrace” clashes with some aspects of black expression and identity that Soitos defines in this genre. Therefore, the existence of this novel begs for a redefinition of the traits found in black detective fiction novels, updated to reflect an intersection with postrace literature and more modern ideals of race representation in fiction.
Décuré, Nicole. In Search of our Sisters’ Mean Streets: The Politics of Sex, Race, and Class in Black Women’s Crime Fiction. Bowling Green, Ohio, 1999. Web.
Howzell Hall, Rachel. Land of Shadows. Forge, 2014. Print.
Saldívar, Ramón. “The Second Elevation of the Novel: Race, Form, and the Postrace Aesthetic in Contemporary Narrative.” Narrative 21.1 (2013): 1-18. Web.
Salvídar, Ramón. “Speculative Realism and the Postrace Aesthetic in Contemporary American Fiction.” A Companion to American Literary Studies, edited by Caroline F. Levander and Robert S. Levine, Blackwell Publishing, 2011.
(Note: page numbers are illegible in the document referenced. Referred to in text for quotes as “Speculative Realism” to distinguish this essay from the other Salvídar essay cited, “Second Elevation.”)
Soitos, Stephen F. The Blues Detective : A Study of African American Detective Fiction. Amherst, Mass: University of Massachusetts Press, 1996. Web.
Image Credit:“Fingerprints” the author is unknown, work is in the public domain (CC0 1.0 Universal).