Rachel Howzell Hall is one of the three editors of Fatally Haunted, SinC/LA’s 2019 anthology. Avril Adams, member of Sisters in Crime, Los Angeles, had the pleasure of interviewing Rachel Howzell Hall, author of the Lou Norton LAPD detective series. Her latest published novel is City of Saviors. Her upcoming standalone, They All Fall Down, is based on Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None.
AA: You always knew you wanted to be a writer. When did you decide to become a crime writer? What attracts you to the genre, especially the police procedural? Have you ever attempted to write in another crime genre?
RHH: Back when I was starting my very first novel, A Quiet Storm, I didn’t know really that there were these things called ‘genre.’ I just knew that I had this story I wanted to tell about two sisters, one battling mental illness, and how bad things happen when you ignore sickness. Whether it was literary fiction, suspense, whatever, I didn’t really think about that. And my attempts to write stories after that first one was hard because of that – I had stories to tell that flailed from one genre to the next. That’s when I discovered crime – all stories fit into crime. Big violent stories. Quiet insidious stories. My writing fell into the middle of these and here I stay. And I love it.
Police procedural was the easiest entry for a new, outright crime writer because it had structure. I like structure. And there’s an obvious heroine with a mission. But I was initially terrified to write a police procedural because I wasn’t a cop, and the whole ‘write what you know’ thing had kept me in my lane. Fear. But then, I survived being pregnant with cancer and through that, I met true fear. Thinking about my mortality and deciding to do those things that mattered to me before leaving this earth resulted in the creation of LAPD Homicide Detective Lou Norton. And now, years later, I’m still in crime but my standalone isn’t a procedural. I’m expanding my world.
AA: Most female crime writers have not tackled the police procedural as opposed to, say, amateur sleuths. Is that because the police department environment is-or has been-almost exclusively male and the ranking personnel generally male?
RHH: I’d say it’s a difficult world to break into because it is all male. And there’s this notion that all cops are male. Or if the cop is female, she’s just like her male counterparts but with nice hair, boobs and ovaries. There are gatekeepers in the police department, and many of them only take male crime writers serious. Especially the LAPD – I’m still waiting for them to return my calls. Ha. So it’s easier to say, ‘Screw it, I’ll write me an amateur sleuth and not deal with the bull.’ I’ve been lucky to have a few police officers from other city’s departments to answer my questions.
AA: Does your publisher represent more than one African-American crime writer?
RHH: Oof. Umm… Forge is my publisher, and I can’t say with 100 percent certainty, but I may just be the one. If there’s another, I hope she/he lets me know! I can say that they publish a lot of female crime.
AA: Your wonderful detective, Elouise Norton, has been promoted from detective to detective sergeant in your most recent novel, City of Saviors. She supervises a racially and sexually diverse group of homicide detectives in Los Angeles’s Southwest Division. However, there are no other female detectives, much less black female detectives. How does Elouise survive in an atmosphere of racial hostility that ebbs and flows with the times, from Rodney King, to O.J. Simpson to Barack Obama and Donald Trump?
RHH: How does she exist? The same way Black women have existed since being brought over here. Or showing up to class and being the only one. Or showing up to work and being the only one. Like us, she makes note of it, and gets going, committed to do her job and make a difference in the lives of those who are depending on her. Like us, Lou can’t stop, won’t stop because stopping isn’t even an option. Audre Lorde said, “When I dare to be powerful—to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid.” Lou would probably whisper that in between sips of a good Cabernet Sauvignon.
AA: In City of Saviors, Sergeant Norton feels challenged by the low expectations and lack of respect some of her colleagues feel toward her because of her race and gender. Isn’t the urban police department a hotbed of these attitudes? Do you feel women and especially black women have made progress in being accepted in police departments?
RHH: I believe some cities have made progress – Los Angeles is far from that department known for its shenanigans that led to the Riots and the OJ Simpson thing. Community policing is a ‘thing’ now in LA – but buildings had to burn down, people had to be beaten, racists and bigots had to be kicked out of their places of power before attitudes changed. We’re not perfect – I don’t think that’s possible. We’re just at Base Camp 1 of Mount Everest, trying to catch our breath.
AA: Policing agencies and fire departments were some of the last institutions to be integrated throughout the 70s, 80s, and 90’s. They were the consummate “white boys clubs” and the subjects of ongoing lawsuits for discrimination, racial and sexual harassment. Is there now enough of a critical mass of females and racial minorities to change that equation? Would it be possible to write a book, say like one of those by Joseph Wambaugh devoid of the racial component? Would it be difficult to be published if the police department is presented in a more negative light? Would there be an audience for such a book?
RHH: I don’t think you can separate race out of any conversation to be had in America. Our country’s very founding, the wars fought on our land. All of it has been fueled by race and white boys’ clubs. Books that won’t acknowledge that, in my opinion, would be intellectually dishonest and cowardly. That would be like… discussing haute couture without acknowledging the LGBT community’s role in fashion. Or… or… discussing World War II and discussing land grabs while skipping over the Holocaust.
AA: Detective squads, particularly homicide squads, are an elite and coveted assignment requiring passing written exams and oral interviews. These squads seem to be very cohesive. There is plenty of jealousy and rivalry among ambitious officers to make that rank. I feel Elouise is more cognizant of this situation in City of Saviors.
RHH: I agree – she’s bright, ambitious and deserves her badge and her success. Some of her fellow officers are resentful and jealous because they know she has something that they’ll never have. Our skin color and our femaleness allows us to connect with people in ways others can’t. At the same time, she’s very much aware of how she’s perceived and that they’re just waiting for her to slip up. She’s very aware of the Black Tax and acknowledges that the behavior some of her co-workers exhibit would never be tolerated if she acted that way. And in City of Saviors, this plays out even more since Lou’s been on medical leave, since Lou isn’t feeling well and isn’t at her best. I’ve always aimed to write her as real and vulnerable and strong, all at the same time, but in City of Saviors, I think I did it best.
AA: City of Saviors is a perfect balance between pathos and humor. Elouise Horton seems to get along with her all-male squad by sharing wise-cracks and gallows humor. Eloise is a champion at this kind of ribbing. She brings to mind Sue Grafton and Walter Moseley at their best. That’s quite an achievement. Has Eloise tapped into this vast reservoir of irony and humor by getting in touch with her inner African-American? She seems somehow freer in this book. She’s a really fun character. Can or will you sustain the humorous aspects of your characters?
RHH: I love Lou – she is fun. Down for ribs and wine, martial arts, Fallout 4 on her Xbox… She is free in some ways – of loving Greg, for example, and proving her worth to the LAPD. But she’s still burdened – by being a good daughter to her mother, a good cop for the sake of her neighborhood. Again, like many black women, we’re free but yet… not. We still hold our breaths whenever a horrible story comes on the news – we’re hoping that the perpetrator is not black. We still go above and beyond at work – to prove how fabulous and gifted we are, yes, but to make sure our bosses and colleagues know that we’re not mercy hires. We can be Oprah Winfrey and still told we can’t buy a scarf from Hermes. And while that is frustrating, I find humor in that. A very ‘shaking my damned head, ain’t that a bitch’ humor in that. That’s how I sustain the humor – there’s so much in this world, in this country right now, to laugh at, to chuckle and sigh. I think crime allows this more than any other genre. I remember being rejected by one editor, when I was still trying to find my voice. She noted that she didn’t like that I found humor in the subject matter I was writing about. But it’s called ‘gallows humor’ or ‘black humor’ and there’s a place for it and I live in that place. If I didn’t laugh, I’d weep and pee my pants. All the time. A big wet mess. Laughing and seeing irony and writing it all down kept me sane through biopsies, ultrasounds, lumpectomies and mammograms.
AA: There’s a significant thread of feminism present in City of Saviors. Without giving away plot points, the topic of witches and uncontrollable women exists in the text and the subtext. Why did you choose to include this theme in your plot?
RHH: Glad you saw that! Lou is seen by her male peers as an uncontrollable woman. Her dead sister was seen as an uncontrollable woman. When I was writing this story, we were going through the primaries. Someone was probably saying something rude and racist about Michelle Obama. Women who use their voice, who don’t back down, who are magic and make things happen? Witches. Uncontrollable women. The church, which City of Saviors focuses on, has a history of wanting to control women – our bodies, who we love, our souls. All of it just came together in this book, and I’m thrilled that you picked up on that. No one’s mentioned that before.
AA: You show an in-depth knowledge of police procedure. How did you become so intimately acquainted with the highly detailed aspects of a police investigation?
RHH: I ask a lot of questions of other writers who happened to be police officers. I attended Writer’s Police Academy. I read a lot of Miles Corwin and essays by David Simon. Read, read, read. When I watch shows like The First.
AA: I understand your new project is based upon Agatha Christie’s novel And Then There Were None. Why did you choose to base your book loosely on Christie’s? Is Christie one of your models? Why?
RHH: I wanted to take something very English and make it American – and from the perspective of a black American. Less about class and more about morality and shades of gray. As you probably know, Agatha Christie had to rename this story — it was Ten Little Niggers. So that history, of course, made me cock an eyebrow. Really, she wasn’t the most… racially sensitive writer. And throw in the allure of taking characters to a remote island and being confronted with their past crimes…
Thank you, Rachel for this comprehensive and delightful interview. We look forward to reading your new book.