For Girls in Capes’ Diverse Reads Week 2015, we’re joined by Constance Gibbs from ConStar Writes TV, who shares some of the diverse mysteries we should be reading.
I grew up reading mystery novels and obsessed over Veronica Mars. I probably read more Agatha Christie than a ten year old should, plus Encyclopedia Brown, some Nancy Drew computer games, and the Sammy Keyes novel series–a favorite. The only character who was anything like me was Sammy, because she was lower class and lived with her grandmother like I did.
But none of the other characters in any of the mystery novels I read looked like me, or looked anything other than white and middle class. So when I recently read two novels that I would have loved as a child, I began to look for other novels that featured sleuths (amateur or professional) that starred non-white protagonists. Almost all of the books listed are YA and almost all of them are by women about female characters. I’ve read two of the books below, but the others are definitely on my To Be Read list.
If you check them out before I do, hit me up here in the comments or on Twitter. And I’d love to hear your other recommendations!
Ink and Ashes by Valynne E. Maetani
Claire acknowledges the anniversary of her father’s death every year, but this year, her family’s past comes back to haunt her, and ends up putting her and her friends in danger. She learns that her father was a member of the yakuza, a Japanese organized crime syndicate. While trying to learn more about this big secret that no one bothered to tell her, Claire begins receiving mysterious—and dangerous—packages.
Ink and Ashes is easy to read, pulls you through the Takata family mystery, and makes you want to follow Claire’s mystery solving adventures into future installments.
Winner of the 2013 Lee and Low New Visions Award, Ink and Ashes is Valynne Maetani’s first novel. (I wrote more about the award it won, which is open for submissions, over at Black Girl Nerds.) Ink and Ashes show how Claire and her brothers navigate the line between their Japanese heritage and American culture. Claire doesn’t speak much Japanese, but performs a ritual for her deceased father every year. She doesn’t really understand Japanese symbolism, but is sent mysterious messages in fours, meaning death.
It’s a great exploration of what kids of immigrant cultures go through when they don’t understand everything about their heritage growing up.
Scarlett Undercover by Jennifer Latham
Scarlett fancies herself a private detective. She even has an office, a business card, and a fedora. When a young client asks for Scarlett’s help in connecting her brother to a boy’s suicide, Scarlett takes the case, but finds the supernatural along the way. Scarlett, a non-practicing Muslim, must reconcile her disbelief in cults, curses, and genies with the evidence presented before her. As the boy’s suicide becomes a clear murder, Scarlett is forced to realized that her culprit might not be human at all.
Scarlett’s narration reads very much like a hardboiled detective novel might, but with more references to Scarlett praying with her sister in the morning, djinn folklore, and Scarlett’s wild curly hair. Scarlett’s struggles with her logic-based brain versus the supernatural evidence in front of her is a fun journey, even when you want to shake her for missing the obvious clues. I love mystery and fantasy, so it’s always a pleasure when they’re successfully paired together.
The Wrath and the Dawn by Renée Ahdieh
Who doesn’t love a folklore retold? The Wrath and the Dawn is a retelling of One Thousand and One Nights, with Shahrzad spinning tales not just to keep herself alive, but to solve the murder of her best friend and the other girls who came before her.
But the twist in this mystery comes not just in the identity of the murderer but in Shahrzad’s own feelings for the boy-king who is more than what he seems.
I am excited to read this just for the twist that the Caliph might not be as murderous as he appears. Scheherazade was always a heroine, but in being relegated to the frame story for One Thousand and One Nights, we don’t get to see a lot of her. Modern retellings allow for us to connect with a smart, capable, and cunning heroine.
- Check out the Girls in Capes review of The Wrath and the Dawn over here.
Zoo City by Lauren Beuke
Zoo City is an urban fantasy mystery set in South Africa with a black heroine. In this alternative Johannesburg, all criminals are assigned a familiar, to represent the bearing a guilt for their crimes. Zinzi December, a former journalist, has been punished with a sloth for her involvement in her brother’s murder. In an attempt to pay back a financial debt, Zinzi finds objects and people. Her latest case, involving a brother-sister pop duo pulls her deeper into the Zoo City that is Johannesburg and her own dark past.
Winner of the 2011 Arthur C. Clarke Award, Zoo City gives us an alternative look into the South African underworld. Since I read The Ear, the Eye, and the Arm in middle school, I was never further introduced to African-set science fiction and fantasy. I love when SFF and mystery combine to make a compelling story, so it’s even better when it features diverse characters in a global setting.
Saving Kabul Corner by N. H. Senzai
Awkward, eleven-year-old Ariana Shinwari’s family owns Kabul Corner, the only Afghani food market in the neighborhood. Ariana’s world begins to change all at once when her beautiful cousin Laila arrives from Afghanistan, a new Afghani market opens up in the same shopping plaza, and her social life at school gets a bit of an upheaval. But it all gets cast to the side when both stores get vandalized and sabotaged, causing the kids from both shops to band together to save their families’ business.
I think what I love most about this story is taking the stereotype of feuding Middle Eastern cultures and using the kids in the novel to bring the families together to focus on a larger purpose. It shows us that even pre-teen immigrants from perceived Third World countries have the same social fears as kids from every American culture. It also allows kids to be aware of bigger societal issues, while still being curious kids who solve mysteries.
A Spy in the House by Y. S. Lee
A Spy in the House stars Mary Quinn, an orphaned pickpocket in Victorian London who attends Miss Scrimshaw’s Academy for Girls. Instead of the standard “Miss Manners” institute, The Academy secretly trains young girls as spies. Mary’s first mission involves sunken ships, deception, and murder, but her own past also has secrets that demand uncovering.
A Spy in the House is the first of a series of novels featuring Mary Lang. It’s the winner of the John Spray Mystery Award (a Canadian honor) and three more novels succeed it. Mary’s half-Chinese heritage isn’t quite at the forefront in the novel, but I believe it becomes more prominent in subsequent books. But her very existence, a half-Irish half-Chinese girl in Victorian London is a wonder in a world where people fight blogs like Medieval POC on the existence of POC in the Middle Ages, and also aches of interesting backstory.
Unraveled by S.X. Bradley
Autumn Covarrubias loves math and dreams of being an FBI profiler, but she never imagined her first case would be solving her sister’s murder. In order to bring her mourning family back together, Autumn investigates the case, putting her life in danger.
Why must it be so incredibly rare to see a nerdy, book smart Latina character? Thankfully we live in a world of Autumn Covarrubias’ and Jane Villanuevas (Jane the Virgin), who show us that Latinas aren’t just sexy, accented women destined to be maids or side characters. Few mysteries are complete without “it just got personal” consequences, but this novel comes right out of the gate forcing Autumn to take her first case seriously. If Autumn were a bad-ass detective on a TV procedural, this novel would read like her epic backstory.
The Dewey Decimal System by Nathan Larson
An homage of sorts to old hardboiled detective novels (think Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett), a post-apocalyptic New York is the setting for Dewey Decimal, an OCD veteran who hangs out in the NY Public Library in 42nd Street. Between reorganizing the library and reading, Dewey does side jobs for the DAs office, of the rough-em-up variety. When he’s sent on a union-busting job, Dewey falls into the world of violence, vendettas, and the mystery of his own past.
Author Nathan Larson is an award winning composer, known for films such as Boys Don’t Cry and Margin Call. I really love the idea of a nerdy, social awkward black guy not only solving crimes, but being the muscle for the DA.
And in this post-9/11 world, stories of post-disaster New York aren’t hard to come by, but books starring people of color working to help rebuild the city are.
Constance Gibbs is primarily obsessed with television, as evidenced by her blog, ConStar Writes TV. When she’s not binging shows or writing recaps, she outlines TV spec scripts, adds books to her Amazon wish-list, and tries to close at least two of the 27 tabs she probably has open. Follow her on Twitter @ConStar24.