The best crime novels that explore race in America

Why am I passionate about this?

I'm a novelist and screenwriter best known for my fourth novel, Under Color of Law, which features Black detective Trevor "Finn" Finnegan of the LAPD. I'm a lover of crime fiction, preferably noir, that works to entertain and enlighten readers by exploring the topical issues of today. I hold an MFA in Writing from Otis College and I’ve taught college-level English and creative writing courses for over ten years.

I wrote...

Under Color of Law

By Aaron Philip Clark,

Book cover of Under Color of Law

What is my book about?

Inspired by my time as a recruit in the LAPD academy, the novel is set in 2014, shortly after the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. Amid protests for racial justice, Black Detective Trevor "Finn" Finnegan of the Robbery-Homicide Division has been given the toughest case of his career—the homicide investigation of Brandon Soledad, a Black police academy recruit found dead in the Angeles National Forest. As pressure mounts to solve the crime and avoid a PR nightmare, Finn scours the underbelly of a volatile city where power, violence, and race intersect. But it's Finn's experience as a beat cop that may hold the key to solving the recruit's murder. The price? The end of Finn's career...or his life.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Devil in a Blue Dress

Aaron Philip Clark Why did I love this book?

The first crime novel I read is set in 1950s Los Angeles and centers on Ezekiel "Easy" Rawlins, a Black WWII veteran living in the predominantly Black neighborhood of South Central. It’s beautifully written, and while the mystery is at the forefront, it's very much about the Black experience in Los Angeles, especially for those who came to Los Angeles during the Great Migration. What's striking is how Easy must use his wits to stay alive, avoid prison, and come out ahead, an enduring metaphor for the Black experience. 

By Walter Mosley,

Why should I read it?

9 authors picked Devil in a Blue Dress as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Devil in a Blue Dress honors the tradition of the classic American detective novel by bestowing on it a vivid social canvas and the freshest new voice in crime writing in years, mixing the hard-boiled poetry of Raymond Chandler with the racial realism of Richard Wright to explosive effect.

Book cover of Inner City Blues

Aaron Philip Clark Why did I love this book?

A solid police procedural that influenced my own book, the novel explores race relations in Los Angeles amid the 1992 Uprising spurred by the beating of motorist Rodney King. Detective Charlotte Justice not only is tasked with solving the murder of a man responsible for killing her family but also contends with the misogynistic, racist, and overall toxic good old boy culture of the LAPD. The novel delivers a twisty mystery and deconstructs an event that should have served as the tipping point for police reform in America.

By Paula L. Woods,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Inner City Blues as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Meet Detective Charlotte Justice, a black woman in the very white, very male, and sometimes very racist Los Angeles Police Department. The time is 48 hours into the epochal L.A. riots and she and her fellow officers are exhausted. She saves the curfew-breaking black doctor Lance Mitchell from a potentially lethal beating from some white officers - only to discover nearby the body of one-time radical Cinque Lewis, a thug who years before had murdered her husband and young daughter. Was it a random shooting or was Mitchell responsible? And what had brought Lewis back to a city he'd long…

Book cover of The Burnt Orange Heresy

Aaron Philip Clark Why did I love this book?

It is a splendid piece of noir that centers on James Figueras, an art critic looking for a big break and has no qualms about how it’s to come about, even if it means breaking the law. What’s subtly woven into the narrative are questions of racial identity. Figueras is a Puerto Rican man whose blonde hair and blue-eyed appearance grant him the ease of moving through the wealthy, overwhelmingly white art world. Here, Willeford suggests that much of Figueras’s social currency comes from his ability to blend into his surroundings, and despite his swindling nature his pedigree as an art critic isn’t overtly questioned. 

By Charles Willeford,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Burnt Orange Heresy as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The classic neo-noir novel acclaimed as Willeford s best, soon to be a major film

Fast-talking, backstabbing, womanizing, and fiercely ambitious art critic James Figueras will do anything blackmail, burglary, and beyond to make a name for himself. When an unscrupulous collector offers Figueras a career-making chance to interview Jacques Debierue, the greatest living and most reclusive artist, the critic must decide how far he will go to become the art-world celebrity he hungers to be. Will Figueras stop at the opportunity to skim some cream for himself or push beyond morality s limits to a bigger payoff?

Crossing the…

Book cover of Monster

Aaron Philip Clark Why did I love this book?

One of my favorite crime novels, though it’s considered, Young Adult, the novel centers on Steve Harmon, a Black teenager, on trial for murder. It’s a superbly written novel that explores issues of institutional and systemic racism, the prison industrial complex, racial identity, and toxic masculinity. However, it’s very much a critique of the justice system as an impersonal machine designed to strip and dehumanize at every turn, especially for Black boys who find themselves in its jowls. In the end, there is no room for error when it comes to growing up Black.

By Walter Dean Myers,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Monster as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it. This book is for kids age 12, 13, 14, and 15.

What is this book about?

This New York Times bestselling novel from acclaimed author Walter Dean Myers tells the story of Steve Harmon, a teenage boy in juvenile detention and on trial.

Presented as a screenplay of Steve's own imagination, and peppered with journal entries, the book shows how one single decision can change our whole lives.

Monster is a multi-award-winning, provocative coming-of-age story that was the first-ever Michael L. Printz Award recipient, an ALA Best Book, a Coretta Scott King Honor selection, and a National Book Award finalist.

Monster is now a major motion picture called All Rise and starring Jennifer Hudson, Kelvin Harrison,…

Book cover of A Time to Kill

Aaron Philip Clark Why did I love this book?

The novel captures the racial and political climate of Mississippi in the 1980s. The plot centers on Carl Lee, a Black man who shoots and kills the two men responsible for raping his daughter and throwing her off a bridge. Considering how justice was doled out in Mississippi and throughout the deep south, especially when victims were Black, it’s hard to believe the rapists would have faced a justice system intent on seeing them fully prosecuted by the law. And I suppose that’s what’s compelling about the novel. Many of the issues raised could be raised today if the novel were set in the 2020s. I still find the novel haunting as it suggests that race will always be a considerable factor in the American justice system.

By John Grisham,

Why should I read it?

8 authors picked A Time to Kill as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?


John Grisham's first and most shocking novel, adapted as a film starring Samuel L. Jackson and Matthew McConaughey

When Carl Lee Hailey guns down the violent racists who raped his ten-year-old daughter, the people of the small town of Clanton, Mississippi see it as justice done, and call for his acquittal.

But when extremists outside Clanton - including the KKK - hear that a black man has killed two white men, they invade the town, determined to destroy anything and anyone that opposes their sense of justice. A national media circus descends on Clanton.


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Book cover of A School for Unusual Girls

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Why am I passionate about this?

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What is my book about?

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