Eleanor Taylor Bland, a pioneer in African-American mystery fiction

February 25, 2020 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: fiction, Women writers and journalists, writers, writing.

In the mid-1980s, Eleanor Taylor Bland had to feel as though her life was falling apart. She was divorced from her husband of 31 years. Living in Waukegan, Illinois, she was half a country away from where she grew up in Massachusetts. She had a job that was less than inspiring. Worst of all, a few years earlier she was diagnosed with Gardner’s syndrome, a fatal cancer, and had been told she could expect a short life span.

But she wanted to write. She had been writing a personal history that eventually expanded to more than 1,000 pages, but with her medical diagnosis, she felt that she had no time to lose.

Her personal history wasn’t going to get published, she decided. She needed write something that would.

So, she created Marti MacAlister, a black female detective on her own with two children. MacAlister had been in Chicago but had been transferred to the town of Lincoln Prairie, a city modeled after Waukegan.

In doing all that, Bland created something that few writers, especially African-American female authors had tried: a black female detective. Getting published then was no small task, but that finally happened in 1992 with the publication of Dead Time. That book was followed by a dozen other titles, the ability to quit her job and write full time, and active membership in Sisters in Crime and the Mystery Writers of America. Today, 10 years after her death in 2010, Sisters in Crime makes an annual award named after her.

“Her prose was just like velvet, simple, concise and straightforward,” said Chicago mystery writer Libby Hellmann, who in 1995 got a manuscript of her first mystery into Mrs. Bland’s hands. “You could read it forever.”

Her advice was direct but always supportive. “Eyes don’t drop,” she told Hellmann, who had used the phrase in the piece she gave Mrs. Bland. “Who’s going to pick them up?” (Chicago Tribune obituary, June 8, 2010)

Bland won readers with her stories, her characters, and her prose. She was a pioneer and set a high standard for the writers who followed.


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