DeLoach, Nora 1940–2001
Nora DeLoach 1940–2001
Nora DeLoach was the creator of one of the most engaging amateur sleuths in contemporary mystery fiction—Grace Covington, nicknamed Candi, known as “Mama,” and dubbed by book critics an African-American Miss Marple in recognition of parallels with the female crime-solver popularized by British mystery writer Agatha Christie. DeLoach’s series of eight Mama books sold well in the 1990s, succeeding first among a primarily African-American readership and then breaking through to mass success among readers fascinated by DeLoach’s keen depiction of small-town Southern black life. As DeLoach turned to writing and to promoting her books full-time, she seemed on the verge of even greater success, but her life was tragically cut short in 2001.
Nora DeLoach was born Nora Frazier in Orlando, Florida, in 1940; she married William DeLoach around 1963, and the couple had three children—two sons, and a daughter who played a major role in Nora DeLoach’s decision to begin writing fiction. A social worker by profession, DeLoach worked for some years in Hampton, South Carolina. That town became the model for the South Carolina town of Otis in which the Mama novels are set—in the words of Publishers Weekly, “a small town where almost everyone knows what everyone else is doing.”
DeLoach did not begin writing until her early 50s, when, as she told the Page One Literary Newsletter website, “The ‘Mama’ series emerged out of the chaos of a collision between my menopause and my daughter’s adolescence.” “My daughter was doing her best to be a typical teenager,” DeLoach recalled in an American Visions interview. “My husband was trying to mediate and trying to keep us from killing each other.” DeLoach convinced her husband to enclose a patio off the couple’s Orlando home: DeLoach turned it into a study and started to write short stories.
Encouraged by a fifth-place finish in an Orlando Sentinel fiction contest, DeLoach resolved to try her hand at a full-length novel. That book, Silas, was turned down by 15 publishing companies over the course of a year, but DeLoach persisted. Finally the book was accepted for publication by Hollo way House, a small, Los Angeles-based publisher with a predominantly African-American readership. “After that, I knew that writing was what I wanted to do,” DeLoach told the Atlanta Constitution.
DeLoach hit her stride as a writer when she began to think both about her own life and about her literary inspirations. She had long enjoyed reading mysteries by Agatha Christie and those featuring Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s eccentric sleuth, Sherlock Holmes. She liked the structure of the Sherlock Holmes stories, narrated not from the point of view of the private investigator himself but from that of his sidekick, Dr. Watson. And both DeLoach and her daughter emerged strengthened from the conflicts they had experienced: “When the dust cleared, my daughter had become a woman, and I, a more tolerant woman,” DeLoach told the Page One Literary Newsletter website.
At a Glance…
Born Nora Frazier in Orlando, FL, in 1940; died June 19, 2001, in Decatur, GA; married William DeLoach, ca. 1963; children: two sons and one daughter.
Career: Mystery writer. Spent much of her career as social worker; worked professionally in Hampton, SC; moved back to Orlando and then to Atlanta; won fifth prize in Orlando Sentinel writing contest, late 1980s; wrote first novel, Silas, 1991 (published 1993); wrote Mama Solves a Murder, first book in Mama series, 1994; four books in series published by Holloway House, 1994-97; signed to Bantam Books, 1997; first Bantam Mama mystery, Mama Stalks the Past, published 1998; four Mama books published by Bantam, 1998-2001.
Awards: Gold Pen Award nominee, Black Writers Alliance, 2001; twice nominated as Georgia Author of the Year.
Memberships: Sisters in Crime, Mystery Writers of America, Georgia Writers, Inc., Black Writers Alliance.
Pulling together these diverse strands, DeLoach created Mama Solves a Murder. Published by Holloway House in 1994, the book was the first in what became an ongoing series of books featuring “Mama,” a South Carolina small-town welfare caseworker and sleuth on the side, named Grace Covington and nicknamed “Candi” because, as DeLoach wrote, she has a complexion the color of candied sweet potatoes. Mama is assisted in her investigations by her daughter Simone, who works in a lawyer’s office in Atlanta, and the plots of the Mama novels often incorporate the warm relationship between mother and daughter.
Simone, like Dr. Watson in the Sherlock Holmes stories, narrated the action and contributes an insight or two along the way. In her narration she fills out the character of Mama in vivid strokes and small details. Among other traits that Simone described, Mama is a terrific cook with a special recipe for sweet potato pie. The actual recipe had been handed down in DeLoach’s own family, and DeLoach became a contributor to a 1999 cookbook entitled A Taste of Murder: Diabolically Delicious Recipes from Contemporary Mystery Writers.
Despite all the various influences that the Mama series brought together, the character of Mama was not modeled on DeLoach herself nor on a character created by any other mystery writer. “The Imperial Woman, a book written by Pearl S. Buck [an early twentieth-century novelist whose books are set in traditional China], is the inspiration behind the ‘Mama’ character,” DeLoach explained to the Page One site. “The book is the story of a woman who has fulfilled her duty as a mother and wife and spends her later years doing what she really wants to do, developing her soul and mind.”
After Mama Solves a Murder, three more Mama novels were published by Holloway House: Mama Traps a Killer, Mama Saves a Victim, and Mama Is Accused. At that point DeLoach changed literary agents, and her new agent won her a contract with Bantam Books, one of the largest publishers of mass-market paperback fiction in the United States. The switch to Bantam broadened DeLoach’s readership considerably. She turned to writing full-time and undertook frequent promotional tours, winning new fans who met her in the giant bookstores that were becoming fixtures of suburban America. DeLoach’s first novel for Bantam, Mama Stalks the Past, was published in 1997.
DeLoach’s works are known in the book industry as “cozies”—mysteries without explicit violence or graphic scenes. While reviewers have rightly noted the influence of this tradition on DeLoach’s books—Publishers Weekly instructed readers to “imagine a charming English mystery set in the South with all African-American characters”—Mama Stalks the Past also exemplifies a highly original trait in DeLoach’s writing, one perhaps related to her background as an African American. Unlike Sherlock Holmes or Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple, Mama is not simply a neutral observer called upon to solve crimes. In Mama Stalks the Past, she herself faces suspicion of having poisoned a neighbor who has mysteriously willed her a plot of land; in other books, Mama comes to the aid of family members or friends. The Mama novels are distinctive in the way they depend upon their portrayal of a matrix of close community and familial relationships.
“I use [mysteries
as the opportunity to introduce people to real African-American characters,” DeLoach told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 1998. Increasingly successful with readers of all races, DeLoach was nominated for the Black Pen Awards of the Black Writers Alliance in 2001 and as Georgia Author of the Year in both 2000 and 2001. The eighth “Mama” novel, Mama Cracks a Mask of Innocence, was published in June of 2001, and DeLoach wrote of a long future for the series. But just as the book was being readied for release, DeLoach was diagnosed with leukemia. She died on June 19, 2001, three weeks after her diagnosis.
Silas, Holloway House, 1993.
Mama Solves a Murder, Holloway House, 1994.
Mama Traps a Killer, Holloway House, 1995.
Mama Saves a Victim, Holloway House, 1997.
Mama Stands Accused, Holloway House, 1997.
Mama Stalks the Past, Bantam, 1998.
Mama Rocks the Empty Cradle, Bantam, 1999.
Mama Pursues Murderous Shadows, Bantam, 2000.
Mama Cracks a Mask of Innocence, Bantam, 2001.
American Visions, April-May 1997, p. 18.
Atlanta Journal-Constitution, December 11, 1997, p. E7; July 17, 2001, Q&A.
Booklist, October 15, 1997, p. 391.
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, April 24, 1998, p. B4.
Publishers Weekly, October 12, 1998, p. 61; May 15, 2000, p. 94.
Nora DeLoach website, http://members.aol.com/ndelo66635/
Page One Literary Newsletter, http://pageonelit.com
—James M. Manheim
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