While reading Bluebird, Bluebird by Attica Locke I was struck by how Daren Mathews, in his position as a Texas Ranger, was affected by being an African American. Though we are well into the 21st Century some white Texans were still uncomfortable with him being a Ranger. They would respect the badge but retained their prejudices towards the man.
Without the badge, he was just a black man traveling the highway alone.
Locke provides an example of the Ranger badge through Uncle William, one of the first black Rangers. Mathews recalls as a boy visiting a police station with Uncle William:
And they showed him a level of deference Darren had never seen from white men. They had no choice. William outranked every last one of them. To this day Darren believed his uncle took him on that ride to show him the power of the Rangers badge.
Within the Ranger bureaucracy there are tensions related to race. There is a unit dedicated to public corruption. When Mathews wants the Rangers to create a unit devoted to hate crimes his report is rejected:
The report had done little more than mark him as overly interested in something for which he was imagined to have an outsize personal stake, which brought little respect from his highers-up and courted the resentment of more than a few white Rangers.
In the book Mathews grudgingly earns the respect of Sheriff Van Horn, the white Sheriff of Shelby County.
The roles of non-white police officers intersecting with their racial background and racial issues is present in several other mystery series.
At one time the best known example would have been the great fictional Australian sleuth, Napoleon “Bony” Bonaparte who is part Aborigine. His interactions with Aboriginal life are prominent in numerous books.
In The Will of the Tribe, written in the early 1960’s, Bony is in northwestern Australia on a vast cattle station where the whites definitely consider themselves superior to the blacks. It is a time of transition as there are wild blacks living the traditional lifestyle on the land, station blacks working in laboring jobs who live in a camp at the station and educated blacks who live on the station.
In The Bone is Pointed he deals with a traditional Aboriginal form of punishment. “Bone pointing” can threaten the life of an Aborigine who believes in its power.
In The Bushman Who Came Back Bony must deal with both blackfellow law and whitefellow law. One of the issues involves a young woman, Meena, being owned by Canute, the leader of a group of Aborigines.
In Cake in the Hat Box we see the whites communicating by radio and the Aborigines by sophisticated smoke signals. As well Bony finds out there is a parallel traditional black murder investigation to his official investigation.
Through the series Bony’s expert knowledge in traditional tracking skills is often used.
In America it has been too long since I read any of the Tony Hillerman books featuring Navajo police officers, Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee, for me to remember the details of their lives as indigenous officers.
I have read and enjoyed the mysteries of Stan Jones featuring Alaskan State trooper, Nathan Active, who has a different background to the above sleuths. He is Inuit and was born in the fictional town of Chukchi on the northwest coast of Alaska. Where the officers mentioned above grew up in black or indigenous cultures Active was adopted by a white family and raised in urban Alaska in Anchorage.
Many of the continuing racial issues for Active in the series revolve around questions of his Inuit identity. There is a feeling that he is not really Inuit having lived much of his life away from Chukchi on the northwest coast. He is looked at as more white than Inuit.
His birth mother wants him a part of Inuit culture. She seeks to find him a nice Inuit wife. Active is trying to fit back in Inuit culture but it is not easy. A local delicacy provides an example. From my review of Tundra Kill:
It is a land where a man is viewed with suspicion who is not interested in muktuk supper:
The two women looked at each other and shook their hands in astonishment at the idea of an Inupiaq man passing up a nice chunk of boiled bowhead whale skin with an inch or two of fat still on. “Not even if it’s fresh!” Arlene said.
In Frozen Sun Active goes in search of the beautiful Grace Sikingik who moved to the city to go to university. She has disappeared into a life of sex and drink on the infamous Four Street in Anchorage. Too often young indigenous men and women have ended up in a self-destructive lifestyle in the big city.
I have more examples from Canadian mysteries which I shall discuss in my next post.