On the bookshelf
Like a sister
By Kelly Garrett
Mulholland: 320 pages, $28
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Mystery writer Kellye Garrett is impressive on paper and, in conversation, a force of nature. A leader and mentor among detective novelists, she exudes the unmistakable aura of having it together. But as she admitted in video interviews and emails in the weeks leading up to publication, she’s a bit nervous about her third novel.
“Like a sisterreleased this week features Columbia University student Lena Scott, who is obsessed with investigating the death of her half-sister, a Bronx blogger and former reality TV star. The media dismisses it as a drug overdose, but Lena knows better.
The novel represents the next level for the New Jersey native and USC alumnus, the culmination of two decades of writing and a lifetime of experience. Set against a backdrop of hip-hop royalty, reality TV rejects and social media stalkers, her first standalone mystery – after two books located in Hollywood — has already landed on several “best of” lists for 2022. But after years of working in an editorial landscape that hasn’t always paid much attention to black women, nothing seems certain.
Garrett’s early career involved a job at a New York newspaper and a stint at Vibe magazine. interview hip-hop artists and producers. Wanting to get closer to the creative process, she turns to screenwriting in her spare time. “But I’ve always been afraid to write books,” she admits, even though she had been writing stories – or at least starting them – since she was 5 years old. “I would start a story, write it down, then forget and move on to the next one. It was a childhood habit that took her decades to break.
Part of the cure, “a dear,” was film school in Los Angeles, where she learned to write sing-song dialogue and balance plot with character (both on full screen in “Like a Sister”). After earning a master’s degree in writing for film and television from USC, she and a writing partner entered the writers’ room of the CBS drama “Cold Case.” But after one season, Garrett and her writing partner broke up, the “Cold Case” gig ended, and after some projects failed to get off the ground, she wondered if she should look for more work at television or make a change.
“It was late 2011, and I had an idea for a novel,” she recalls. Family health issues brought her back to New Jersey, where — between her day job in communications and her residual anxiety as a writer — it took three years to complete a manuscript. Crucial to its process was the recently disbanded non-profit Launch Warswhere unagented writers were paired with published mentors who helped polish their work for an agent showcase.
“Pitch Wars is why I value the community so much,” says Garrett. “I have met some of my closest friends throughout my career as a mentee and mentor.” (Among his mentees were award-winning novelist Kristen Lepionka and mystery writer Mia Manansala.) Garrett found his agent through the program, and two long years later, publisher Midnight Ink picked up his debut album, “Hollywood Homicide.” in 2017.
with writers as SA Cosby, Rachel Howzell Hall and Zakiya Dalila Harris acclaimed and sold out, it can be hard to understand why Garrett had such a hard time selling his series at the time. But five years can make all the difference. “The market is different today than it was in 2016,” observes Garret. “To be frank, a lot of big publishers weren’t checking mystery books written by and about people of color at the time.”
His two novels in the Detective by Day series, which starred amateur sleuth and unemployed actress Dayna Anderson, were notable for their wicked humor, endearing characters, and pointed observations on life in Los Angeles. “Hollywood Homicide” won a handful of awards; its sequel, “Hollywood Ending,” was on course for similar success when Midnight Ink shut down in 2018, just two months after the second book was published.
It came as a shock to the generally optimistic writer, the start of what she calls a dark period. “There were times when I wasn’t sure I would ever finish another book, let alone get another contract,” she says. But Garrett made the most of those years, building the pipeline that had helped her along the way. She joined Walter Mosley and Gigi Pandian to create Crime Writers of Color, an all-volunteer organization that now has 350 members and a speakers bureau and podcast — all in an effort to fill a glaring gap in the publishing landscape.
“I had heard of this great period of the 1990s for black crime writers, when Eleanor Taylor Bland brought together so many writers. But, from what I understand, after his death, it seems that this community has disappeared a bit.
And of course, she continued to write. In July 2020, “Like a Sister” was sold on a two-pound, six-figure deal with Little Brown’s Mulholland imprint. While Garrett doesn’t draw a direct line between her advocacy and her success, she believes the climate has improved as a result of our national consideration of race. “There has been a concerted effort to post more diverse voices,” she says. “As a reader it makes me excited because it means more amazing stories for me to read. As a writer it makes me excited but also nervous because I don’t want this to be seen as a trend It has to be the status quo.”
While “Like a Sister” Shares Some DNA With Previous Mysteries, including a relatable heroine and a somewhat subdued sense of humor, Garrett’s first stand-alone takes on a darker tone. Inspired by the real life death of a director girl in 2018, the novel explores the intricacies of strained family relationships stemming from the musical executive of Lena’s absent father. The disconnect between media personas and privacy is a recurring theme, helping to expose how fame is built in the age of “finsta” accounts and personal brands.
But it’s not a standard tabloid thriller. One of the most powerful moments in the book comes when Lena imagines donning a Super Black Woman cape to deal with her grief. “Unlike the Angry Black Woman label, many tried to get us to wear it,” Garret writes. “Strong or Super Black Woman was the one we often gave ourselves,” even when the world didn’t provide protection. “I don’t know if it was always a good thing, but it was most definitely our thing, passed down through both nurture and nature from generation to generation like a recipe for sweet potato pie.”
Garrett donned this cape herself to deal with illness and death in her own close-knit family. “People don’t see black women as vulnerable, but we are,” she says. “And I try to embrace that more in me.”
Perhaps that explains the ease with which she admits pre-release jitters. But after seeing her in action and spending time immersed in her lively, socially shrewd plot new thriller, it’s clear that Garrett has nothing to worry about.
Woods is a book reviewer, editor, and author of the “Charlotte Justice” mystery series.