Carter’s characters rarely do what one might expect. Reading her work just gives you a jolt.
In 1985, British publishers Allison & Busby began reprinting the crime novels of Chester Himes, the writer that would soon become my hard-boiled hero. Using the wondrous Harlem-themed paintings of Edward Burra to illustrate the covers, the books themselves were beautiful and brutal. Himes was an ex-con expat who began his career as a literary writer (If He Hollers Let Him Go and The Lonely Crusade), then turned to pulp fiction when he was struggling in Paris in 1956 and needed to make money to survive. Although he was friends with fellow authors Richard Wright and James Baldwin, there was no shame in his writing game as he quickly wrote the shoot-‘em-up books for French publisher Marcel Duhamel, founder of the Serie Noir.
Writing about the Harlem world exploits of detectives Coffin Ed and Grave Digger Jones, the stories never stray beyond the confines of that community. Beginning with For Love of Imabelle (AKA A Rage in Harlem), originally published in 1957, Himes’ nine-book series was violent, absurd, mean-spirited, and funny as hell. Two of the books, Cotton Comes to Harlem (1964) and The Heat’s On (1961) were adapted into bugged-out blaxploitation fare in 1971 and 1972, with the later being retitled Come Back, Charleston Blue. While I had seen both films a few times, it wasn’t until a decade later that I finally got a chance to read and appreciate the texts.
“Himes fractured the plangent social criticism of his early novels into a menacing phantasmagoric carnival of Harlem tricksters, jive artists, hoodoo gurus, stoolies, junk men, and hustlers,” critic Robert Polito noted in 2001. While Himes’ noirs, according to Polito, “vies with the novels of David Goodis and Jim Thompson as the inescapable achievement of postwar American crime fiction,” his works inspired countless Black writers including Ishmael Reed, Robert Deane Pharr, Walter Mosley, Gary Phillips, and Charlotte Carter, a former poet turned noir novelist whose amateur detective Nanette Hayes was a middle-class, college-educated New York City jazz musician who made money blowing her saxophone on various blocks throughout Manhattan. Nanette, a native New Yorker hailing from Queens, lied to her divorced mother about being a French teacher at NYU., but instead spent her days honking through the songbooks of Lester Young, Ben Webster, Charlie Parker, and Sonny Rollins on the streets of the naked city.
Hayes lived her life as bohemian and beat as a Kerouac character while bopping through life with the energy of a Charlie Parker song. Unlike Himes’ characters, Hayes never stepped foot in the hood, but she still managed to get involved with a number of criminal-minded folks who stole, conned, and killed. Haynes, a Francophile much like her creator Charlotte Carter, was the star of three beautifully crafted novels that began with Rhode Island Red in 1997. Two years later, Carter followed up with the mostly Paris-based Coq au Vie, and with the final book Drumsticks in 2000.
Rhode Island Red was first published in England by Serpent’s Tail when no American house would commit to the bald, twenty-eight-year-old character (“I’m more or less a Grace Jones lookalike in terms of coloring and body type—she has a better waist, I win for tits.”) who was also fluent in French and occasionally did translations to make a buck. While the UK Morning Star newspaper described the work as “be-bop in words,” fellow crime writer George Peleconos claimed Carter’s style was “jazzy prose riffs read poetic.” Yet, unlike Toni Morrison (Jazz) or Xam Wilson Cartier (Be-Bop, Re-Bop), she never allowed the sound of music to overpower the structure of the text.
Carter discovered Himes’ work when she was a student at the University of Chicago in the late ’60s. The Windy City native started with Cotton Comes to Harlem and soon worked her way through Chester’s complete canon. When, in 1996, she began working on Rhode Island Red, it was Himes who served as her guiding black light.
“I was first drawn to him, because he was an expat and I just thought that was so glamorous,” Carter says decades later from her New York City apartment on Avenue A. “Although he began his career as a literary writer, there wasn’t an ounce of pretension in his stuff. I soon formed the opinion that he was a fantastic writer, but probably not very nice.” We both laugh at her observation; having read biographies on Himes penned by James Sallis and, most recently, Lawrence P. Jackson, I know she speaks the truth. “He was such a tortured man and had such a weird life.” Like Himes, in the beginning of her writing career, Charlotte Carter too was on a more literary path, having participated in poetry workshops with Bernadette Mayer at St. Marks Poetry Project in the ’70s and traveling to Tangier to study fiction with Paul Bowles in 1980, before finally choosing to transfer her skills to crime fiction.
While Carter’s life might’ve been less tortured, she has had her own share of weirdness, both personally and professionally, while striving to have her lit-voice heard in the white male-dominated genre. According to Paula L. Woods’ seminal collection of Black crime fiction Spooks, Spies, and Private Eyes, the first published Negro mystery story ever published was “Talma Gordon” by Pauline E. Hopkins in 1900 in Colored American Magazine. Still, it wouldn’t be until the 1990s that Black women began contributing to the genre en masse with novels by Eleanor Taylor Bland, Barbara Neely, Valerie Wilson Wesley, and Grace F. Edwards lining the bookstore shelves.
Nevertheless, it was Carter’s jazz-loving, sexually liberated protagonist that resonated with me from the moment I’d bought the book at the now-closed Shakespeare and Company bookstore on Lower Broadway. “A terrific novel, from those witty, subversive opening sentences, to the edgy, melancholy and very satisfying ending,” read Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Margo Jefferson’s blurb on the book. Tracing Nanette’s origins, Carter says, “I was with a man (Frank King) who I subsequently married actually, and he was writing crime fiction. One day we were on 6th Avenue in the 20s, in what used to be known as the Flower District, and we saw a young woman playing saxophone with a hat in front of her to collect tips. When we got home, Frank said, ‘You should do a book about a female saxophonist. It would be kinda funny, but you like mysteries so much, why don’t you do that?’ And, that’s how it started; I never would have done it without him.”
However, according to her good friend Patricia Spears Jones, an award-winning poet (A Lucent Fire: New and Selected Poems) and teacher, even when Charlotte was writing poetry and experiential fiction, she was using noir as a literary device. “Charlotte was the master of the prose poem, but some of the stuff she was writing anticipated what Walter Mosley would do a few years later,” Jones says. The two writers met in the 1970s when they were the only two black members of the St. Mark’s Poetry Project. Some of Carter’s writings from that period can be found in the small press collection Personal Effects, published in 1991. “People should read her early works if they can, because those prose poems are very powerful. She used soap operas and mysteries as literary tropes to create something completely different.”
Jones also dug her friend’s adventurous nature, like the time in 1980 when Carter ran off to Morocco to study fiction with The Sheltering Sky novelist Paul Bowles, the man that poet Allen Ginsberg once described as “a writer’s writer.” A former protégé of Gertrude Stein, it was her who had suggested Bowles go to Morocco to live and work.
“I was such an admirer of Bowles’ work and then one day I saw a small ad that he was conducting a writing workshop,” Carter explains. “I was determined to get there, though I wasn’t sure how.” In the end, Charlotte made it over, but the experience turned out to be anticlimactic. “I don’t even know how to describe him. Delicate and lethal, I suppose. He was such a strange man. We did not get a whole lot done, because it was an atmosphere so saturated with drugs (hash), the entire experience was like a dream. I wasn’t smoking all the time, but it was in the air twenty-four hours a day and everything felt as though it was happening in a dream. He insisted on having the workshop at his apartment, which was a mistake, because people from all over the world were constantly knocking on his door. I had started working on a project, but I never finished it. It was just impossible.”
A decade before sitting down to bang out Rhode Island Red, Carter wrote another noir murder mystery novel called Lady Lie, but, though she was close to a deal, the book was never published. “An editor from Little, Brown wanted it, but the same day I was supposed to sign the contract, she was fired,” Carter says and laughs, though, at the time, it was far from funny. “So you can understand why I didn’t do something like that for another few years.” However, once the character Nanette Jones was planted in her mind, Carter was determined to finish. Her then-boyfriend Frank, who wrote a series of cat cozies (wholesome crime novels) under the pseudonym Lydia Adamson, helped her construct an outline. “I wouldn’t have been able to do it without him.”
In the first of three books, Nanette is thrust into a crime scenario when she befriends a fellow street musician named Sig. Claiming to be homeless, Nanette brings him back to her funky First Avenue and 17th Street apartment and makes him sleep in the living room. Sig, who turns out to be an undercover cop, is murdered in her spot, but not before stashing $60,000 inside the bowl of her saxophone. From there, we are introduced to a motley crew of supporting characters, including a hostile homicide detective named Leman Sweet, and Aubrey, a smart stripper who was Nanette’s oldest and closest friend.
In addition to music and literature, Nanette is also a film geek—like Carter herself—who at one point compares her crazy situation to a “low budget homage to Godard.” While writing the book quickly, Carter listened to Phil Schaap’s daily Charlie Parker radio show Bird Flight on WKCR-FM every morning. “That would set me off for the day,” Carter says. “I love vocalists too and played those kinds of records as well. During the day I was listening to singers either on cassettes or on the radio. I wanted the cadence of the book to be musical, as though I was doing a jazz riff.”
Six months later, Rhode Island Red was finished, but selling the book became a whole other headache. “Publishers and editors said that they liked the book and there were good responses, but then something would always happen and the deal wouldn’t happen. I was just about to give up when Serpent’s Tail took it. I felt great, but they were a small house, so the advance was tiny and the publicity was limited.” Still, the book blew up in England; the American publisher Mysterious Press, then a division of Warner Books, bought the novel and commissioned jazz-centric artist Paul Rogers to do the covers. “Ultimately the book was translated into French, Italian, Portuguese, and Japanese, but here in the States, despite the reviews, it had a very limited audience.”
Even though Nanette Hayes was a different kind of detective, perhaps the common trait between her and other noir characters was her hard-drinking ways. Indeed, drunkenness and hangovers were also something that Charlotte Carter herself was quite familiar with during that period. “Yeah, the ’80s and early ’90s were my drinking days,” she confesses. “I wasn’t into doing cocaine, but I did drink a river of whiskey. I didn’t take very good care of myself, and also put thirty pounds on my ass.” We laugh. “For many years in the ’80s, when I was drinking a lot, I wasn’t writing at all. I wasted an awful lot of time, but I had a hell of a lot of fun.”
Carter’s partner-in-crime-writing and matrimony Frank King, who died in 2015, was also a hard drinker. “He was a very high-functioning drunk, but I was always very envious of his discipline. He could get up in the morning, have a couple of vodkas, and sit down to write. He set a goal for himself and never blew a deadline.” In the late ’70s, Charlotte and Frank met when she worked as his assistant and their love affair grew from there. “It wasn’t a very tranquil marriage, but he was a seminal influence in my life. I’m not sure if I would have written anything without him.” Charlotte dedicated Rhode Island Red to her man Frank, but also gave a shout-out to her parents and the music they played in their South Side Chicago household when she was a young girl.
Charlotte Carter grew up in the segregated city in a section known as Bronzeville. “Most Black people lived on the South Side, because there were so many restrictions about where we could live. There were lots of blues clubs in the neighborhood, and everywhere we went there was some great music playing.” Living in a house with three generations of folks that included her Grand Ole Opry listening grandparents (“I came to love Patsy Cline.”), a Charlie Parker loving uncle, and a father who couldn’t get enough of Billie Holiday and Dinah Washington. “He collected all of their records, but he also liked more obscure vocalists like June Christy. My mother, on the other hand, had more pop tastes. She thought that Billie Holiday was gauche.”
An only child until she was twelve, Charlotte also read a lot, devouring the works of Truman Capote, Flannery O’Connor, James Baldwin, and Kingsley Amis. “But given the choice,” Carter said in 2001, “I always went for fiction where people were having affairs and drinking martinis or committing suicide.” Although she later discovered the crime novels of Chester Himes, Charles Willeford, and Jim Thompson, her introduction to noir came through her love of film.
“I loved things like Out of the Past, Crossfire, and Odds Against Tomorrow,” Carter says. “As a kid, going to the movies was a part of life and I went a lot with my mom or friends. When I was a little kid, we went to the Regal theater, which also had a stage show. I saw James Brown, Big Joe Turner, Frankie Lymon, and Moms Mabley there, too. A few years later, I started going to a local cinema in Hyde Park to see foreign films, especially those by François Truffaut and others coming out of the French New Wave period.”
Carter’s love for cinema bleeds over into her fiction, which was written in such a vivid style that it’s almost like watching a film unwind, especially the dazzling second novel Coq au Vin, which has the feel of Godard’s Breathless master-mixed with Jean-Jacques Beineix’s Diva. Although Nanette is supposed to be in Paris looking for her wayward Aunt Vivian, she falls in love with an American musician, a heartbreaker violinist named Andre. Caught up in lights, lust, and liquor, it seems as though Nanette briefly forgot why she was really there. “In the ’80s, I tried living in Paris, but it didn’t quite work out as planned,” Carter says. “I was already in my forties, so it was too late and I was too old. I thought it would be like the Paris of the 1950s, but it wasn’t.”
During her late teen years, Charlotte, who attended several community colleges, was trying to put herself through the University of Chicago while also working, taking folk guitar lessons, and hanging out in neighborhood bookstores while also sneaking into clubs to hear jazz and poetry. Still underage, sometimes older college students would pass her a beer. Moving to Brooklyn when she was twenty-four, Charlotte spent her first New York year in Cobble Hill, where she was “the only Negro” living amongst the Italians.
After a year, she moved to the East Village in a building that was across the street from St. Mark’s Church where the Poetry Project was housed. “That was a turning point in my life,” Carter remembers. “That’s where I first took a writing workshop and met people who helped form my work. Patti Smith was my neighbor, and, though we never met, I’d see Jim Carroll a lot. Someone I was dating introduced me to the Poetry Project and I became friends with various poets including Ron Padgett and Lewis Warsh.”
In 1975, Warsh and Anne Waldman published Carter’s first collection Sheltered Life on their Angel Hair Press. Three years later, when her work was published in Ordinary women: Mujeres comunes (co-edited by Patricia Spears Jones, with an introduction by Adrienne Rich), Carter met acclaimed writer and teacher Wesley Brown (Tragic Magic,Darktown Strutters), who reviewed the book on the alternative radio station WBAI.
“This was during the second wave of the feminist movement, and there were a lot of Black women publishing in small presses,” Brown says over the phone from his home in Chatham, New York. “When I read Ordinary women, Charlotte’s work in particular just knocked me out and I cited her poems during the broadcast. We’ve been friends ever since.” Brown, whose latest book Dance of the Infidels borrows its name from a Bud Powell tune, would jazz-club hop with Charlotte, going to spots like the Jazz Standard or the original Knitting Factory on Houston Street.
“We would talk about film noir and detective fiction, so I wasn’t surprised when she ventured in that direction. But, whatever kind of material Charlotte was writing, there’s a wonderful weirdness to it. Her angles on things, her perception is unpredictable. Her writing is always outside of any current box that people try to put Black writers in, but it wasn’t like she was trying to be outside, that’s just the way Charlotte wrote. Even with the Nanette Hayes novels, which were wonderful books, she looks at things from a perspective that other writers might not consider, which makes them very exciting, refreshing, and substantial. Her characters rarely do what one might expect. Sometimes reading her work just gives you a jolt.”
Rereading the out-of-print Rhode Island Red twenty-one years after it was published, I was struck with how perfectly Carter captured pre-gentrification New York City, when young artists could still afford to live by themselves in Manhattan, dive bars thrived, and interlopers weren’t walking on the wrong side of the sidewalks with their dogs and baby carriages. “I miss that aspect of the city terribly,” Carter says. “In the ’80s, life was good. I was teaching and living in SoHo, and later I moved to the West Village, and then I got a bigger place near Union Square. Every neighborhood had its charm. Perhaps that’s what I miss most about the city; the charm is gone for me and I miss it terribly.”
Since the last Nanette book Drumsicks was published in 2000, Charlotte Carter has published three more novels including the brilliant stand-alone erotica joint Walking Bones (2002), and two Cook County-based mysteries Jackson Park (2003) and Trip Wire (2005). A fourth Nanette book Rooster’s Riff was completed, but shelved when Warner Books cut ties with Mysterious Press in 2005. In addition, she has written treatments and scripts for proposed Nanette film projects, but nothing has come of them.
Although Carter hasn’t published in over a decade, she is still writing. “Right now, I’ve been working on some short stories and, for a few years, I’ve been thinking that I’d really like to collaborate with an artist and do a graphic novel.” Through crime fiction, she has explored various subjects including art, race, class, sex and the decisions women make when choosing to step outside the perimeters drawn-up by society and family. In life and literature, Charlotte Carter has walked the freedom path and shown no fear.
Michael A. Gonzales has written essays and articles for The Village Voice, New York, Pitchfork and Mass Appeal. Co-author of Bring the Noise: A Guide to Rap Music and Hip-Hop Culture (1991), he has written music journalism for Newark Bound, Red Bull Academy, The Wire, and Wax Poetics. His short fiction has appeared in Bronx Biannual, Brown Sugar, Black Pulp and Crime Factory. Gonzales is currently finishing his literary New York City hip-hop novel Boom for Real. More information on The Blacklist can be found on Facebook.