Rhode Island Red

By Charlotte Carter

Republished by Baskerville, 2022
Crime fiction, Paperback £8.99

Review by Dave Young

If ever there was an underrated literary heroine it is Nanette Hayes, the crime solving, jazz playing, Paris-loving, black American woman at the heart of Charlotte Carter’s mystery trilogy.

First appearing in the 1990s, the books were arguably 30 years ahead of their time. Publishers had little idea how to market noirish stories whose sexually confident and funny heroine’s chaotic actions come accompanied by a strong moral imperative 

A self-described Grace Jones lookalike, Nanette shares elements of her creator’s life: middle class upbringing, fluent in French, a penchant for drinking and hanging out with bohemians. Carter’s writing style was described by the Morning Star as ‘bebop in words’ and her work is revered by fellow crime writers, such as Donna Leon and Lisa Cody.

Rhode Island Red grabs the reader’s attention from the first page and retains it throughout with vivid descriptions and authentic dialogue set in the vanished, pre-gentrification urban landscapes of The Big Apple. Its knock-about plot involves Nanette offering a fellow busker a bed for the night, only to discover him murdered next morning. Worse yet, he’s an undercover cop, with a stash of cash, a blind girlfriend and an avenging buddy. Add a saxophone literally worth its weight in gold and you’ve a wholly original and completely immersive crime caper.

A keen movie buff, there’s a cinematic quality to Carter’s writing and some of her books were optioned for filming, sadly never getting past the development stage. Goodness knows why. They tick all the contemporary boxes for feisty female protagonists and plots spanning both sides of the Atlantic to widen audience appeal. Far better than much of the dross Netflix commissions.

Carter began her career as a poet – which informs the rhythms of her writing – and later worked as an editor, teacher and musician. She waited years to get published before finally being picked up by Serpent’s Tail in the UK, where she’s long enjoyed greater popularity than in the US. Her short stories have appeared in Granta and crime writing compilations. Fun fact: Chicago-born, African-American Carter travelled to Morocco when a young woman to study fiction with Paul Bowles. 

Rhode Island Red and its two sequels, Coq au Vin and Drumsticks, are now also published by Baskerville. 

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