Susan Moody was born and brought up in Oxford. Her first crime novel, Penny Black, was originally published in 1984 and was the first in a series of seven books featuring amateur sleuth Penny Wanawake. They have now been republished by Williams & Whiting. Susan Moody is a former Chair of the Crime Writer’s Association of Great Britain, a former World President of the International Association of Crime Writers and a member of the Detection Club. She is currently the 2016 Writer in Residence for The Pen Factor.
I've just been rereading To Kill A Mocking Bird (by Harper Lee) and reflecting on the nine years I spent living in east Tennessee during the mid-60s, as the civil rights movement got under way. They were stirring and dangerous times. Bombings, shootings, lynchings … activists down south in Tennessee, Alabama. Missouri etc were brave people indeed.
My husband and I were involved with the NAACP, the National Association for theAdvancement of Coloured People, founded by Medgar Evers, who worked tirelessly for voter registration rights, the desegregation of schools and colleges, and boycotts of companies practising discrimination against black people, before he was assassinated by the Klan. We held meetings at our house, with the black attendees forced to sneak up from the woods, since they weren't supposed to be in our segregated white area.
We were watched. One evening a sinister glow shone behind our venetian blinds and we discovered a cross burning on the lawn. How had someone managed to plant it in the grass and set fire to it without us hearing anything? Who was responsible? We knew the neighbours weren't sympathetic to the cause, but this was rather more than simple disagreement with our views. This was in Oak Ridge, known as Atomic City, established in 1942 as a production site for the vast operation that developed the atomic bomb at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory.
Another time, the Ku Klux Klan came into town. The origin of the words Ku Klux apparently comes from the Greek word Kyklos, meaning circle, though it seemed highly unlikely that this redneck organisation of bigoted and intolerant homophobic, anti-Semitic, witch-hunting ignorami even knew what Greek was. By the 1960s, the Klan, heavily against giving black people the vote, was concentrated on striking fear into the hearts of a superstitious people deliberately kept uneducated and disenfranchised. The white ghost-like robes, the pointed hoods, the featureless head-coverings with only holes for eyes were indeed terrifying.
I'd come from a liberal upbringing in Oxford, followed by two years in Paris. Coming from Europe, I was shocked and appalled by the discrimination I witnessed there. Not to mention the moonshine stills in the woods, the chain-gangs of convicts overseen by a white guy on a horse, with a rifle across his knees, the only restaurant in town a self-service place where black men were allowed to take your tray at the till and carry it to a table, as long as they were wearing white gloves. And I shall never forget hearing a child of about eleven calling out "Boy! Boy! I want more water."
So by the time I got back to England, I felt I had to do something to equalize things. I'm not implying that my Penny Wanawake series was a manifesto for civil rights but – thanks to a competition organized by the Sunday Times, looking for a new female protagonist in the field of crime – I created tall, rich, beautiful and socially concerned Penny. I wanted a black woman who was not intimidated by white folks, who felt she had as much right as anyone else to walk down the mean streets, who was the equal of everyone else.
That was quite a few years ago. I'm absolutely thrilled that Williams & Whiting, a new and go-ahead publisher, has seen fit to re-issue all the Penny books. The original reviews were ecstatic ('A protagonist who strides right into the gallery of amateur sleuths to occupy a position of distinction,' said the Financial Times. 'Debuts do not come more exotic or exuberant,' wrote The Times. 'Finger-lickin' good,' commented The Observer.)
I very much hope that Penny will find a new audience among today's crime readers.