7 Novels that Use Mystery to Examine Race
Books about people of color navigating a justice system rooted in racism
Unlike any other genre, mystery breaks the world apart. Sometimes this shattering comes from a death at a dinner party. Other times it happens when a family member goes missing in broad daylight. No matter how things fall apart, to solve a mystery, the pieces must come back together by the end. To do this, the genre often relies on systems of power that uphold the status quo: the good guys win, the bad guys lose and justice is served. To make it plain, the genre can look very white.
When writing my debut novel, Jackal, I wanted to tackle difficult questions around history, race, and class by using a mystery. In the book, Liz Rocher returns home for a wedding only to uncover a disturbing pattern: young Black girls have been going missing in their predominantly white town for years.
Mystery thrives on patterns and expectations. Readers expect the process of an investigation or the findings in a court room to reveal the truth because these are proven methods of righting an injustice. However, these methods assume the lens of whiteness. Examine these systems from the perspectives of people of color and they start to break down. Detectives dismiss leads because racial bias. Witnesses withhold testimony because they fear repercussions for cooperating with a system that has failed to protect others in the past. Victims aren’t believed because of assumptions around race and class. Bit by bit, these established rhythms of justice fall into discord. By the end, marginalized folks are left holding broken pieces of their lives with seemingly no way to put them back together. To center whiteness denies this brokenness. It also wastes an opportunity to do what mystery does best: solve things.
In the list below, the writers disrupt the whiteness of the crime and mystery genre by centering BIPOC protagonists. Instead of relying on the same formulaic tropes, these books explore what it means to be a person of color navigating a justice system rooted in racism.
My Sweet Girl by Amanda Jayatissa
My Sweet Girl follows Paloma Evans, a Sri Lankan adoptee. Having been adopted by white American missionary parents, she grew up with the best of everything. Now 30 and struggling to make the rent on her overpriced San Francisco apartment, Paloma sublets spare room to Arun, who recently moved to the United States from India. When she finds Arun dead, murdered in her apartment, she must face her past to fix her rapidly eroding present.
Paloma is charming despite being prickly, impatient and stuck in her bad habits. She is also as unreliable as they come. The story unfolds as she struggles to solve the mystery and navigate the racism she faces as a Brown woman, while reckoning with the tensions between her childhood in her birth country and her current life in her adopted country.
All That’s Left Unsaid by Tracey Lien
Ky Tran, a young Vietnamese Australian woman, returns home after her younger brother is murdered. Once there, she notices how the circumstances of his murder don’t add up. After struggling to spur an indifferent police force into action, she sets out to track down witnesses. With each new voice, she begins to uncover a horrible truth rooted in violence, colonialism and the choices people make to survive.
A writer’s duty is to tell the truth and Lien doesn’t shy away from it. Fearless and unflinching when it comes to the immigrant experience, Lien crafts a story that deepens with each page and lands close to the bone.
Like a Sister by Kellye Garrett
When disgraced reality TV star Desiree Pierce is found dead in the Bronx in the early hours of the morning after her 25th birthday party, the authorities quickly declare her death an overdose. But her sister Lena Scott knows otherwise. Though the two are estranged, she knows her sister wouldn’t travel above 125th street. After being dismissed at every turn, Lena embarks on a search on her own to find out what really happened.
The characters in this novel are deliciously complicated, imperfect and real. Additionally, Garrett utilizes how Lena and Desiree see themselves versus how society perceives them as Black women to drive this mystery through every twist and turn.
Your House Will Pay by Steph Cha
Your House Will Pay details the historical tensions between the Black and Korean communities in Los Angeles. While living with her Korean immigrant parents and working in the family pharmacy, Grace Park struggles to understand the distance between her parents and her sister Miriam. After a police shooting of another Black teenager, Shawn Matthews grapples with his relationship with his family while mourning the memory of his sister who was also killed by police and keeping his own demons at bay. When a shocking crime roils L.A., the Parks and the Matthews face a reckoning decades in the making.
Cha deftly constructs a story where the personal is also political. Using real life events and beautifully drawn characters, the mystery breaks open and reveals the complexities of past and present racial tensions at every turn.
Black Cake by Charmaine Wilkerson
A family saga told in dual timelines, Black Cake brings two estranged siblings together to uncover their mother’s hidden past. After their mother Eleanor’s death, Byron and Benny inherit her black cake recipe and a voice recording. Along the way, they untangle a legacy of murder, heartbreak, and betrayal that stretches from the Caribbean to California.
Like Wilkerson and the characters in Black Cake, I come from an immigrant family. There are parts of my family’s past which are a mystery to me; who they were before they left their country and the circumstances that led them to leave are often wrapped up and kept close to the chest. Wilkerson uses the gradual unraveling of family secrets to challenge and question Black immigrant identity and relationships.
Winter Counts by David Heska Wanbli Weiden
A local enforcer on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota, Virgil Wounded Horse serves as a source of justice outside of the American legal system and the tribal council. When a heroin epidemic overtakes the reservation, Virgil must learn where the drugs are coming from and how to stop them from poisoning the community.
Virgil’s biracial identity and struggling to find belonging is beautifully woven throughout this story. This is a novel that details many facets of life on a rez without shying away from hard truths.
When No One is Watching by Alyssa Cole
Sydney Green’s block is changing. Tendrils of gentrification are quickly uprooting her beloved neighborhood in Brooklyn. She starts a walking tour to retain her community’s history, but as she digs into the past, more of her neighbors begin to disappear and Sydney must figure out what’s going on before she vanishes next. When No One is Watching is an excellent blend of hidden history and fast pacing, by the end Cole captured all the unease of gentrification in thriller form.