Thirty years ago, Carter addressed racism, colorism, classism, and sexism head on. Her books feel just as relevant today.
This essay by Caitlin Landuyt, editor, Vintage Books, was previously published on Crime Reads
Nanette Hayes, the Black jazz saxophonist/Francophile/reluctant crime solver of Charlotte Carter’s Rhode Island Red, Coq au Vin, and Drumsticks, blew into my life last year, when a colleague at Knopf mentioned three mysteries that had been published in the 90s but since gone out of print.
Would we take a look for Vintage Crime/Black Lizard? I remember I started the first book, Rhode Island Red, one morning between meetings, thinking I would get through a few pages and maybe get a sense for it quickly. I couldn’t put it down. There was no question in my mind that these were masterful novels. Carter is a sly and seductive writer (the perfect mix for noir, in my opinion), adept at subtly dropping clues and perfect at the end of chapter cliffhanger.
“There was no question in my mind that these were masterful novels. Carter is a sly and seductive writer (the perfect mix for noir, in my opinion), adept at subtly dropping clues and perfect at the end of chapter cliffhanger.”
By the end of the first chapter there’s a breakup, a secret identity that comes to light, and a dead body on the kitchen floor. I was hooked. How had I not known about these books before now? Rediscovering a great story is a universal joy. There’s that one book that sometimes you forget about but then you see it in a bookshop, or maybe even on a shelf in your childhood home, and suddenly it all comes back to you. Not just the plot, but the way you felt reading it. Even though I hadn’t read Charlotte’s Nanette Hayes series in the late 90s when they initially came out, I felt that sense of nostalgic excitement reading Rhode Island Red. I felt it again the next day, reading Coq au Vin and Drumsticks (because of course I binge read them).
“Even though I hadn’t read Charlotte’s Nanette Hayes series in the late 90s when they initially came out, I felt that sense of nostalgic excitement reading Rhode Island Red. I felt it again the next day, reading Coq au Vin and Drumsticks (because of course I binge read them).”
The nostalgia comes, in large part, from the way Carter uses the noir canon. In Rhode Island Red everyone is on the hunt for a legendary saxophone worth its weight in gold; it’s clear to a noir fan that Carter is referencing Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon. But while she’s inspired by the classics, Carter isn’t bound by them. She takes what she wants from the canon and subverts the heck out of the rest. Nan is no femme fatale, dependent on her wiles to lure a man into doing what she wants. Don’t get me wrong, she can smolder and romance (and does, to great effect), but she’s as much Marlow as she is the women who tempt him. She’s cool under pressure and she always gets her man. Plus, she can belly up to the bar with the best. As a result, these books feel as fresh and new as they do classically rewarding. This juxtaposition allows Carter to illuminate issues that are as important now as they were in the 90s. Her books address racism, colorism, classism, and sexism head on. They are bold and powerful, and there’s an urgency to her work that I think speaks as strongly in 2021 as it did at the original time of publication.
“As a result, these books feel as fresh and new as they do classically rewarding.This juxtaposition allows Carter to illuminate issues that are as important now as they were in the 90s. Her books address racism, colorism, classism, and sexism head on. They are bold and powerful, and there’s an urgency to her work that I think speaks as strongly in 2021 as it did at the original time of publication.”
Carter holds a mirror up to human nature, and she shows us all of it: the good, the bad, the ugly, the beautiful. To my mind, she’s among the best at writing commercial fiction with a message that still manages to be fun, and funny. Happily, I wasn’t the only one who felt this way. Carter has a lot of champions at Vintage Crime/Black Lizard. Her modern take on noir fits perfectly with the list’s dual goals: to publish the best of classic crime literature and to discover new voices that push the genre forward. Publishing any book is a labor of love, but republishing these has been particularly fun because they’re constantly picking up fans. It’s been like a game of dominos. Early on, the editorial and publishing teams fell in love, then came the managing editors, production editors, designers, publicists, marketers, and sales reps. The unanimous excitement behind repackaging and republishing these books makes the whole process feel like a first-time publication.
I was also fortunate enough to get to work with Carter editorially, as she went through each book and made small changes and adjustments. Watching her work has been fascinating. All authors see the whole of the book and its universe in a different way than readers, but Carter has lived with these characters and these stories for over twenty years now. She sees details and nuance that I could never have caught, and the Nan in these books is ever-so-slightly older and wiser, I would say.
The past year has felt a bit like a treasure hunt—as though the Nanette Hayes mysteries are the real priceless saxophone from Rhode Island Red. And I’m happy to say we’ve had many less setbacks than Nan and her friends. When the final copies of Rhode Island Red arrived and I could finally hold the book in my hand, I felt as excited as I have about any original I’ve published. The books felt new when I read them, and now they look new. They are (in my decidedly biased opinion) as intriguing, elegant, and fun as the stories they contain.
Now that the first book is out in the world, I’m getting the same sense of excitement I did when I first read the Nanette Hayes series a year ago. It’s a thrill to think that someone else will discover—or rediscover—these modern classics. And it’s always a joy to introduce readers to a book that is so beloved by those who have worked on it.
Ultimately, I hope every reader has the same experience with Carter’s work as I did. I hope someone sees Rhode Island Red in the window of their favorite bookstore, or finds it while perusing the shelves. I hope they pick it up, read the back, decide to buy it. Because from there, I’m confident they’ll be hooked. They’ll have the “just-one-more-chapter” moment the whole way through. And they’ll be as sad as I was to turn the final page. Luckily for them, they’ll still have two more Nanette Hayes books on deck with Coq au Vin and Drumsticks. And luckily for all of us, Carter is still writing, still thinking up stories designed to lure the reader in and hold them captive.