The best crime novels that explore race in America

Aaron Philip Clark Author Of Under Color of Law
By Aaron Philip Clark

The Books I Picked & Why

Devil in a Blue Dress

By Walter Mosley

Book cover of Devil in a Blue Dress

Why 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. 


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Inner City Blues: A Charlotte Justice Novel

By Paula L. Woods

Book cover of Inner City Blues: A Charlotte Justice Novel

Why 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.


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The Burnt Orange Heresy

By Charles Willeford

Book cover of The Burnt Orange Heresy

Why 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. 


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Monster

By Walter Dean Myers

Book cover of Monster

Why 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.


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A Time to Kill

By John Grisham

Book cover of A Time to Kill

Why 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.


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