Classic Crime: Talma Gordon

Today: the second Lizzie Borden-inspired crime tale, and of the earliest (possibly the first) published mysteries by a black author. “Talma Gordon” appeared in the October 1900 issue of Colored American Magazine, an early literary and cultural journal for African-American readers. The author of “Talma Gordon,” Pauline Hopkins, was also the magazine’s editor, and one of its most profilic contributors.

Pauline Hopkins
Pauline Elizabeth Hopkins (1859-1930). Source: coloredamerican.org

I wrote about Pauline Hopkins for my Women Writers of Folklore and the Fantastic series, so I’ll quote what I said about “Talma Gordon” there:

Lovely golden-haired Talma Gordon is accused of the grisly murder of her wealthy father Jonathan Gordon, her stepmother, and her infant half-brother. During the investigation it comes out that Talma did not get along with her stepmother, that her father had forbidden Talma’s marriage to struggling artist Edward Turner — and that Gordon had been planning to leave the bulk of his wealth to his son, with only a small annuity to each of the two daughters of his first wife. Talma is acquitted legally, but not necessarily in the court of public opinion. What really happened?

You can read “Talma Gordon” here.

If you’ve read Hopkins’ fiction before, you’ll recognize the themes in “Talma Gordon.” On the plus side, it’s a crisp and engaging crime tale, and if there had been an American equivalent of The Strand Magazine at the time, “Talma Gordon” would have been right at home. On the other hand, I do have to give it a point off for a Deux ex machina ending, and some aspects of the story haven’t aged well—because some of the cultural attitudes of the time are, thankfully, no longer acceptable.

All in all, if you’re looking for a unique take on the Lizzie Borden story, as well as an interesting piece of literary and African-American history, do check out “Talma Gordon.” I hope you enjoy it!

Women Writers of Folklore and the Fantastic: Pauline E. Hopkins

Today’s featured author is Pauline Elizabeth Hopkins (1859-1930): writer, journalist, editor, poet and playwright. From approximately 1902 to 1904, she was the editor of Colored American Magazine, one of the earliest literary and cultural journals aimed at an African-American readership (“a magazine Of the Race, By the Race, For the Race“). She was also the magazine’s most prolific contributor, serializing several novels within its pages, and often writing pieces for the magazine, both fiction and non-fiction, under various pen names.

Pauline Elizabeth Hopkins (1859-1930). Source: coloredamerican.org

I’m featuring her today for her gothic adventure-romance Of One Blood; or The Hidden Self, which was serialized over eleven issues of Colored American Magazine. However, she is also a germinal figure in one of my other favorite genres: detective fiction. Her short story “Talma Gordon,” published in the October 1900 issue of the magazine, is said to be the first published mystery by a black author [citation]. Her novel Hagar’s Daughter: A Story of Southern Caste Prejudice is “the earliest-known African American novel to feature a black detective” (two of them, actually) [citation, but see note1 below]. I’ll talk about all three of these works (with links to read them!) in this post.

Hopkins is an important figure in Black American literature, but for a long time she was obscured by other black literary figures of her era. A 1972 Phylon article brought her back to public (or at least academic) notice. Since then, there’s been a fair bit of Hopkins scholarship. I’ll also point you to some interesting articles from that literature stream, as well.

But now, on to the stories!

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