Earlier this month, I learned of a free giveaway offer for Chesya Burke's new novel, Strange Crimes of Little Africa, which will be coming out from Rothco Press on December 1st. I was lucky enough to be one of those who received a no-strings-attached electronic ARC, although in the interests of full disclosure, the publishers did ask after the fact if I would be willing to post a review. Since I do that for almost all the books I read, that's no problem.
Strange Crimes of Little Africa is set in 1926, in Harlem, in the middle of the Harlem Renaissance and the flowering of jazz. The protagonist is Jaz Idewell, a young black woman studying anthropology at Barnard College. Jaz is bright, sure of herself, and proud of her position in Harlem society as the daughter of the first black cop in New York, a man that her neighbours look up to and respect. Inspired by her father's profession, she has an interest in criminology, and even fancies that she might become not just a lady cop, but a detective.
She has a good life. Her best friend is fellow Barnard student Zora Neale Hurston (yes, that Zora Neale Hurston) and she has loose connections to other members of the Harlem Renaissance. She's connected, happy, and even the white professors and cops in her life seem to like her.
Then it all begins to unravel when she finds herself witness to the discovery of a body long-hidden, and realises that the dead man is her uncle, missing for 15 years. In her desire to solve the mystery of what happened, and clear the name of her cousin, arrested for the murder, Jaz, with Zora at her side, will explore the dangerous corners of Harlem life and discover hard truths about herself, her family, and the society she lives in. This is not just a historical murder mystery, this is also the nuanced and poignant portrayal of a young woman forced to suddenly grow up and see the world as it is, not as she wants it to be.
Burke has talked about the research she did to make the setting as historically accurate as possible. By making Zora Neale Hurston, who was indeed studying anthropology at Barnard in 1926, and well-known black numbers boss "Madame" Stephanie St. Clair and her enforcer "Bumpy" Johnson, characters in the novel, Burke both enhances the realism and gives us a rich perspective on urban black life in the 1920s in America.
I want to talk a bit about how reading this book affected me as a white woman. As I've mentioned above, Jaz Idewell is intelligent, courageous, caring, a bit inclined to jump to conclusions and charge right into situations, and more than a bit naive. She's flawed - which makes her human - but she's interesting and admirable, which makes her a great character, and one that I found very easy to identify with. But the world that Jaz lives in is a world full of both casually personal and crushingly systemic racism and sexism, and to the best of my knowledge, Burke doesn't sugarcoat it.
So as a white reader - or at least, this white reader -proceeds through the book, identifying with Jaz, and getting a second hand look at the treatment Jaz receives as a black woman, everything from the daily microaggressions to the huge and heart-breaking events of intentional cruelty, there's a buildup of resentment, frustration and rage.
This is something that I've experienced before, this fierce and honest generosity on the part of an author that allows me to see, at a remove but still from the inside, a form of oppression that's not something I experience myself. I've seen it in the work of Walter Mosley, Octavia Butler, Toni Morrison, Thomas King, Leslie Feinberg, and others. And I do believe that Burke intended this for her white audience, and I hope others will embrace this as I have tried to, as a gift of sharing experience and a path to understanding.
Strange Crimes in Little Africa works on many levels, as a mystery, as a rite of passage narrative, as an introduction to a vibrant place and time in American history, and as a meditation on what it was - and still is - like to be a black woman in America. And it's clear that Burke has at least one sequel in mind.