Leye Adenle: How I found black heroes in crime

Blockbusting megastar Morgan Freeman inspired Nigerian writer Leye Adenle to succeed in a genre he loves

Crime pays. Just ask James Patterson. Or any of his many accomplices. I turned to a life of crime because of him. My bad influence, he is. But it wasn’t his amazing fortune what did it. Nor was it his 300 million copies sold that lured me to the dark side. Nah. It was his Alex Cross. His African-American psychologist/detective protagonist.

Did I mention he is black? Alex Cross, that is, not the god of books who created him. And, Morgan Freeman played him in Along Came a Spider. Morgan Freeman. The Morgan Freeman. The voice of God. He played James Patterson’s Alex Cross. Morgan, Almighty, Freeman.

So you get it already; I worship Mr Patterson, and Mr Freeman, so I can move on already, yeah? Wrong. You see, it’s a lot more than that, or a lot less if you already figured out from my name that I am black African. Nigerian, to be precise.

Ever since I read my first Alex Cross novel, I’ve bought every Patterson until I discovered that I simply don’t have the reading time to catch up with his backlog or to keep up with his rate of production. Prolific, he is, and consistent. Not one of the many Pattersons I own (or have owned because unlike some I tend to give away books I’ve read and enjoyed) has been cast aside unfinished, never to be returned to.

Mr Patterson is the most successful crime fiction author and he is white, and his greatest character is black. He is a damn good writer. But there are many damn good writers. This one created a black protagonist and that did something for me. You see, Mr Patterson is the most successful crime fiction author and he is white, and his greatest character is black. Like me.

No one should be that excited by melanin but the world is what it is. Oscarsgate comes to mind. The under-representation in many walks of life of people with enough pigmentation in their skins to qualify as black is a real thing. So when a Nigerian writer comes across a black protagonist in an international bestseller, something warm and fuzzy happens inside him. Years later I would get that inner glow of joy again when Mr Obama became president of the USA.

So, I love Alex Cross because he is black. And amazing. And I admire Patterson because he’s a fantastic writer and because he created an amazing black protagonist. But what about amazing black characters created by black writers? Where are they? What great crimes are they solving? Where are the films in which they are played by great actors? Where are their bestsellers?

My childhood is a library of novels I started and never finished. Scorpion Island. The Black Mamba. Thunder in the Roots. I cringe at the titles now but then my 12-year-old mind thought they were great. They were ‘Black James Bond’ novels. They had black protagonists defeating international crime cartels with subterranean hi-tech complexes hidden beneath mangrove forests. They were the fantasies of a child who wanted to see his face in the movies he watched and in the books he read.

Typecast, I was, but then along came a spider, and I was shown that there is a place for a black man in crime

But somewhere between dreaming and growing up, one learns one’s place in the world. Black literature was literary. It was Chinua Achebe. It was Wole Soyinka. It was Toni Morrison. It was James Baldwin. My place as a writer, if I wanted to be a writer, was in literary fiction. Typecast, I was, but then along came a spider, and I was shown that there is a place for a black man in crime.

Now, a trailblazer I am not. In the same year Easy Motion Tourist, my debut crime novel, is published, I’ve signed books next to the prolific South African crime writer Deon Meyer, in Lyon. I met the amazing British-Sudanese crime author Parker Bilal, also in Lyon. In the same year The Lazarus Effect, by Liberian female crime author Hawa Golakai, has been published, and later this year Nigerian writer Toni Kan’s new novel, The Carnivorous City, will be published. And then there’s Attica Locke who, three books later, is showing that black crime matters and sells.

I’m not unique. I, as what I represent – a crime fiction writer who happens to come from Africa – am no longer a big deal. And I love this. I love that I have partners in crime spread all over the world, a good proportion of them from Africa. A truly international crime network. If you are going to embark upon a life of crime, you better have a damn good posse around you.

My book is a crime thriller. It’s got murder, it’s got mystery, it’s got guns, it’s got sex and it’s got crime aplenty. And it’s written by an author who happens to be from Africa because, well, crime pays, and even a writer from Nigeria is free and welcome to make his fortune in crime.

Leye Adenle’s debut crime novel, Easy Motion Tourist, is out now in paperback (Cassava Republic Press, £8.99)