English professor explores detective fiction

Dolores Sisco

Dolores Sisco

When a person has a passion for a topic, it shows. It changes a person’s demeanor, like turning a light on. In the case of Dolores Sisco, that topic is detective fiction; she absolutely loves it.

In fact Sisco, an English professor at YSU since 2005, loves it so much she’s writing a book about it. The forthcoming work, tentatively expected in 2014, will focus on African American women writing detective fiction featuring African American female protagonists.

“The book fits in with African American literature, and more specifically, African American women’s writing, popular culture and the detective novel,” said Sisco. “There have been some academic books that look at the detective novel as a whole genre, but not too many concentrate on just this field of African American women who write these very popular detective novels.”

The working title of the book is “Popular Novels of Detection by African American Women,” and focuses on the interactions and portrayals of the African American protagonists in regard to bias because of race and gender. For example, Barbara Neely’s “Blanche White” series features a black woman who works as a domestic to the wealthy and becomes embroiled in mysteries as she overhears scraps of information.

“There is a connection between what she does and what happened during slavery because as silent members of the Big House, the slaves knew everything about the family, and this is what Blanche White does,” Sisco said. “She’s not a professional sleuth, but people tell her things, and of course, she’s observant; the slaves had to be observant, so I link her that way. But her readership, they remember their mothers, grandmothers and aunts who had to work as domestics to put them through college, so that was a way of identifying with Blanche and the things that she goes through.”

Sisco said that all of the authors analyzed in her book are extremely popular in the black community, but their books aren’t reviewed by the New York Times. “Most mainstream audiences, if you talk about black detectives, the first one that comes to mind is Walter Mosley. I don’t have anything against Walter Mosley,” continued Sisco. “They’re really good books, but there hasn’t been enough done on African American women who write these novels. They’re extremely popular, but they don’t get the reviews; they’re not interviewed on Colbert.”

Sisco’s love for the genre began at a young age when she devoured Nancy Drew and never looked back. “I forced a little playmate once, since she was a little rounder than me, to be Watson, and I became Sherlock Holmes and we went looking for footprints,” laughed Sisco, who earned her bachelor’s degree from the University of Baltimore, her master’s degree from Central Michigan University and her doctorate from Michigan State.

Her interest in the stories had practical applications in Sisco’s former career in banking as well. “I did what we call back-office operations. In my job, I had to find huge bank errors. I only dealt with millions of dollars,” she recalled, “and I’m bad with numbers. In order to find missing checks, or find one check among pages of identical check amounts took critical thinking, observation and deduction which I got from reading Sherlock Holmes.”

Nevertheless, she has never had a desire to pursue detective work further than the pages of her books. “I’m a literature person, and that’s where I enter into this, through the literature,” said Sisco. “I thought I was going to be a classical pianist, but literature won over Beethoven.”

Story by Harry Evans