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Black ivy mysteries – mystery books about black scholars in white institutions


It’s not uncommon for fiction writers to create
heroes and heroines whose personalities and life circumstances stem
from the writer’s own experiences. So it should come as no surprise
that when Pamela Thomas-Graham decided to write a mystery novel, she
created an African American heroine who teaches at the same university
where she spent her undergraduate and graduate years.

“[Writing a novel] was something I had wanted to do for a long
time,” Thomas-Graham said of her book, A Darker Shade of Crimson, which
was released by Simon & Schuster in April.

Even though Thomas-Graham did not choose to make academia her
career, the parallels between her and Dr. Veronica “Nikki” Chase, the
heroine of A Darker Shade of Crimson, give fiction’s newest African
American sleuth a compelling basis in reality.

Chase is a thirty-year-old, Harvard-trained Ph.D. economist and an
assistant professor in that school’s economics department. The novel
chronicles her adventures as she investigates the allegedly accidental
death of a Black female administrator at Harvard.

In some respects, Professor Chase represents the alter ego of the
thirty-four-year-old author — a Harvard graduate with degrees in
economics, law, and business, Like the real-life Thomas-Graham, Chase
is a native of Detroit, who majored in economics at Harvard and spent
much of her career in competitive corporate environments. Chase and
Thomas-Graham are both high-achieving, driven, ambitious Black women in
White-male-dominated professions.

In 1995, Thomas-Graham achieved a widely publicized business
milestone by becoming the first African American female partner at
McKinsey & Company. The New York-based management consulting firm,
considered one of the best in the world, has more than 3,000 consult
ants in thirty-five countries. Thomas-Graham’s duties at the company
include advising Fort0he 500 companies in media, retail, and the
apparel businesses. Her achievement got her profiled in Fortune, the
Detroit Free Press, Ebony, Black Enterprise, and Harvard Magazine. It
also landed her on the “40 Under 40” list in Crain’s New York magazine.

While at Harvard College, Thomas-Graham earned Phi Beta Kappa
honors as an economics major. She was active in plays and musicals
throughout her undergraduate and graduate years, and worked on the
prestigious Harvard Law Review while in graduate school.

Setting the novel at Harvard was a natural for Thomas-Graham. “I
spent eight years there. I felt I knew it very well,” she says.

In her novel, Thomas-Graham weaves a multicultural tapestry that
frames the story of intrigue at the Ivy League campus. As the story
begins, Chase discovers the body of Rosezella Maynette Fisher, a Black
woman who is dean of students at Harvard Law School, at the bottom of a
stairwell in a campus building. Fisher apparently had fallen to her
death down a flight of stairs in what is ruled by police as an
accident. By the story’s end, the heroine, who had become friends with
the victim a short time before the accident, solves the mystery of
Fisher’s death.

Within the tapestry of her novel, campus politics at Harvard is
portrayed — replete with political struggles over diversity issues,
fundraising, university governance, and administrative appointments.
The novel unveils some of the dilemmas that Black faculty and
administrators confront at predominantly White institutions. For
example, the appointment of a Black woman as dean of students at
Harvard Law School stirs enough resentment among her Harvard colleagues
that it leads the heroine to investigate circumstances surrounding the

“I think campuses are appealing settings for murder mysteries,”
said Thomas-Graham, explaining that when comparing academia to the
typical corporate environment, college communities offer a more
textured and fertile setting for story possibilities.

Last month, Thomas-Graham, who expects to give birth to her first
child this July, completed a nine-city tour promoting the book. The
tour got a boost from Harvard alumni clubs which hosted a book-reading
event and reception for Thomas-Graham in each of the nine cities. Book
tour stops included New York, Boston, Washington, Atlanta, Chicago,
Dallas, and Cleveland.

Early reviews have been favorable. People magazine recommended the
novel as its “Page-Turner of the Week” selection in early April. And an
assessment in Kirkus Reviews concludes, “Thomas-Graham’s precisely
rendered campus background, vivid characters, easy dialogue, and
fluidly entertaining narrative mark a robustly talented new recruit to
the genre.”

Over the past several years, a genre of Black detective mysteries
has achieved considerable popularity among Black and White readers,
most notably by authors Walter Mosely and BarbaraNeely. Dr. William W.
Cook, chair of the English department at Dartmouth College, says that
while the African American detective mystery tradition goes back many
years to the works of novelist Chester Himes, the emergence of more
recent mystery authors reflects the broadening interests of African
American writers.

“The range and variety [of African American literature] is much greater today. I feel it’s a very healthy trend,” Cook says.

Cook, who is a fan of Walter Mosely’s murder mystery novels, says
Black writers, for generations and particularly during the Black Arts
Movement of the 1960s, had largely felt compelled to create fiction to
serve social protest purposes.

Thomas-Graham cites writers Sara Paretsky, Sue Grafton, and Jane
Hamilton as some of her favorites. She also admires Black mystery
writers Mosely, BarbaraNeely and Valerie Wilson Wesley for transforming
the murder mystery novel format from one of mere entertainment to one
that mixes mystery with sharp social commentary.

“The murder mystery format, while entertaining, lends itself to one
that can serve as a forum for social and political comment,”
Thomas-Graham says.

Thomas-Graham says she intends to have her heroine deal with issues
of race and gender that commonly arise in the university setting. In
forthcoming novels, Professor Chase is expected to solve crimes at
different Ivy League campuses. The second installment in the Nikki
Chase “Ivy League” mysteries series, tentatively titled Blue Blood,
will be set at Yale University.

The author’s husband, Lawrence Otis Graham, is a New York-based
attorney who is also a writer. He has written ten nonfiction books,
including Member of the Club. According to Thomas-Graham, it was her
husband who got his literary agent, the renowned Esther Newberg, to
read a draft of the murder mystery manuscript. That led to a three-book
contract deal with Simon & Schuster.

“[My husband] was extremely supportive of me,” she says.

Thomas-Graham says balancing a demanding career and a productive
writing schedule required considerable discipline, but added that “it
was a labor of love.”

“I did it in my spare time. I wrote mostly on the weekends,” she says.

Despite a demanding business and writing career, Thomas-Graham
manages to sit on the boards of the New York City Opera and the
American Red Cross of Greater New York. She serves on the national
board of Girls Incorporated, formerly the Girls Club of America, which
is a national organization devoted to adolescent girls.

Thomas-Graham says that Hollywood film producers have approached
her about securing the movie rights to her novel, but no deals have
been made. An audiotape of the book, which features the voice of
actress Hazelle Goodman as Nikki Chase, has become available in
bookstores. Thomas-Graham also mentions that included among the film
producers are Black actresses who are interested in the role of
Professor Chase.

“[These actresses] are interested in good roles,” she says.

COPYRIGHT 1998 Cox, Matthews & Associates

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