The Strange Crimes of Little Africa by Chesya Burke
Rothco Press (December 2015)
201 pages; $17.99 paperback/$2.99 e-book
Reviewed by Anton Cancre
I’ve been a fan of Chesya Burke’s short stories for years. “The Unremembered” from the Dark Faith anthology floored me, and her collection Let’s Play White is pure fire. Given that, I was extremely excited when she decided to write a novel, but The Strange Crimes of Little Africa had some fairly big boots to step into.
Ostensibly, Strange Crimes is a mystery. Anthropology student Jaz Idawell’s cousin is arrested for the murder of her uncle several years before, but she knows he didn’t do it. With the help of the one and only Zora Neal Hurston, she is determined to find the truth, no matter what it costs her. Of course, like all of the best mysteries, the case isn’t really the point. Jaz’s search becomes a search for her own identity and her own history.
This is a strange one to review, because the basic premise seems so banal. What changes everything about it is how well Chesya captures and displays the reality of 1920s Harlem, especially as compared to the manner in which popular culture has displayed both that time and place. Not that this should come as a surprise to any fans of Burke’s previous work. She has never been one to shy away from the ugliness and horror that everyday people inflict on each other. At the same time, she walks the line between message and story, avoiding outright diatribe and stump speeches.
I’d be lying if I told you Strange Crimes was a fun little romp between the pages. It’s ugly and mean and horrific in painful ways, but it’s also passionate and honest and damn beautiful as well. There’s also this bit in the family basement that creeped the holy hell out of me.