Interview with Pamela Thomas-Graham

 Pamela Thomas-Graham
Photograph by Buck Ennis

One of America's most successful African-American businesswomen is also one of the hottest young mystery writers around. Pamela Thomas-Graham, who happens to be the first black partner at the world’s largest management consulting firm, returns with Blue Blood, the follow-up to her debut effort, the Harvard-set A Darker Shade of Crimson featuring economics professor/super-sleuth Nikki Chase. Read our exclusive interview to learn about the fascinating Pamela Thomas-Graham: novelist, businesswoman, and mother. Hi Pamela. Start off by telling us about the real-life incidents that inspiredBlue Blood .

Pamela Thomas-Graham: There was a real-life incident that occurred in 1991 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which many people still probably remember: The wife of a Harvard professor, who was also a professor herself, named Mary Jo Frug, was found on a deserted street in Cambridge, a victim of stab wounds that she later died from. The case has never been solved. It's one of those notorious unsolved incidents where it's never been clear whether her attacker was a stranger or someone who knew her. At the time that it occurred many people said there were so many interesting facets of the case that would have made an interesting novel, and I thought to myself, "Yes, it would be an interesting starting point for a novel."

Around that same time, ironically, there was also a case at Yale -- unfortunately, they have had several episodes of students being crime victims -- in which a male student named Christian Prince was killed on one of the nicer New Haven streets, actually very near the Yale campus. In this instance, however, they did find the killer and the person was jailed, but it was not inconceivable that such an event could happen at Yale. And then there was a very chilling episode that is still an open investigation right now at Yale: a senior named Suzanne Jovin was killed in December of '98, a case that has some incredible parallels with my book, even though my book was written before it occurred. Suzanne Jovin was found on a street in New Haven and she'd been stabbed -- again, it's an open case. One of the people who's been at least named in the press as one of a handful of suspects is a Yale instructor. So there are some unfortunate parallels between that real-life case and my book, which takes place on the Yale campus as well.

bn: Frightening. New Haven has that reputation for being a notoriously tough town.

PTG: Well, it's been a troubled town economically, and because the campus is very close to many of the neighborhoods in the town that have been economically troubled, there is a lot of friction, I think, at times between the Yale community and...the New Haven community.

bn: I attended a college in the Ohio town of Springfield, which was recently voted by one of those publications that rates college towns as one of the worst college towns in the country. Like New Haven, Springfield has experienced quite a few economic setbacks, and my school, Wittenberg University, has had to deal with several instances of violence toward students. In one incident, a good friend of mine was shot in a gang-related crime. To get into the gang, the prospective kid had to attack a Wittenberg student. Crazy. So I can definitely relate to Yale's situation, and to some of the problems that arise in Blue Blood , as well.

PTG: I think after the Christopher Prince episode, the university really did a lot to try to improve safety on campus, and they had a very long stretch where the crime rate was noticeably lower, so I'm sure it's quite disappointing, for lots of reasons.

bn: Let's talk about your character, Nikki Chase. What do the two of you have in common?

PTG: [laughs] Well, we're both young black women. We both work in environments that have traditionally been white male environments: She's trying to become a tenured professor at Harvard and I work as a management consultant at McKinsey & Company; the management consultant industry has traditionally not been a place where there have been a lot of women or minorities. So we both confront continually the issue of what it's like to be young and black and female in an environment where there aren't a lot of people who meet those criteria. That's where the similarities start to end, because she's single and living in Cambridge, and I'm married and a mother and living in New York.

bn: Are there things that Nikki would do that you wouldn't do in a million years?

PTG: [laughing] She's a lot more adventurous than I am. She's probably a lot more reckless in many ways than I am, I think.

bn: You're the first black female partner at the world's largest management consulting company, you've received degrees from Harvard Business School and Harvard Law School, you're a mother. How did you ever become interested in writing a mystery?

PTG: I'd always wanted to be a writer. I went to Harvard undergrad as well and I was an economics major and, while I've always been interested in economics and business issues, I've always read a lot of fiction and always wanted to be a writer. So I guess I got the itch to start writing about five years ago now, so I wrote my first book, A Darker Shade of Crimson . I decided to write a mystery because I love reading mysteries, and I particularly love reading mysteries about women written by women, so I'm a big fan of Sue Grafton, Sara Paretsky, and Valerie Wilson Wesley, and I really liked the idea of having a smart feminist detective who is an amateur living her life but gets drawn into some interesting intrigue.

bn: What, in your opinion, makes a good mystery?

PTG: I think a good mystery is one that entertains because it has a compelling plot and setting, but also educates about something that is interesting. I really like reading mysteries that teach me something about a different setting or a different profession. I really like amateur detective stories because they tend to be the kinds of stories that can help you understand what it's like to live in a different place, but also are just entertaining.

bn: Did you enjoy researching Yale? Your first novel, A Darker Shade of Crimson , was of course set at Harvard, which you attended. How was the experience different the second time around?

PTG: The writing experience was different for the second book, but it was a lot of fun. I basically spent one whole autumn going up to New Haven on the weekends and kind of poking around. It did make me feel a bit more like Nikki [begins to laugh] to be in a different environment and to be getting acclimated, looking for what's interesting, keeping my eyes open for interesting settings and interesting quirks about the school, and poking around in different buildings. It was a good diversion.

bn: Not that I attended Yale, but it seems that you did an excellent job at nailing down the lingo and other interesting quirks about the school. That couldn't have been easy.

PTG: I'm lucky that I do have a lot of friends who went there for college and who were generous in talking to me about their experiences, and also getting me into places: There's this place called Mory's, which I write about in the book, that you can only get into if you are a member. So I had the assistance of some Yale alums to get me into some of the more interesting places.

bn: Did you see a difference between the attitudes of Yale alums and Harvard alums? Is there a certain snobbery that's consistent?

PTG: [laughs] Well, it's interesting; I think there's a very friendly rivalry between the two schools and, even though a lot of us end up in similar places after we finish school, there still is a kind of friendly teasing about which one is better for different things. I think there probably are more similarities than differences.

bn: My father attended Princeton, and every five years or so we all make the trip for the enormous reunion bashes they put on. And there, people speak like Princeton is God's own.

PTG: My husband actually went to Princeton. Those P-rades are amazing. It's interesting -- my third book is going to be set at Princeton. So I've started doing the research for it and, as much as there are clear similarities, usually the Ivy League schools really do have their own unique personality. But Princeton, in particular, has a very, very strong sense of camaraderie, and the loyalty that Princeton graduates have to the school really exceeds anything I've seen. And since my husband went there, I have a lot of insight into what's it like to be there, so I think it's going to be fun.

bn: Several times in Blue Blood , you deal with the issue of affirmative action. How has affirmative action changed our society? And how do you see affirmative action evolving in the next century?

PTG: I personally support affirmative action. I personally believe that it is important for people to start at a level playing field, and I do believe that people underestimate the amount of racial bias that still exists in our culture today -- I think it's much more subtle but I do believe that it still exists, and I try to illustrate that in some ways in both of my books. So, my personal view is that it is an important tool among other tools to try to level the playing field and create a truly equal society.

Having said that, clearly there are issues of fairness that need to be balanced. I think that affirmative action as it exists today is going to continue to evolve, and I think it will evolve in ways that move away from numerical measurements, and probably evolve more toward qualitative assessments and things like college admissions. It may even expand to include economic status as well as racial status, because you can certainly make the argument that as more African-Americans and Latinos move into higher economic groups, class, as well as race, is going to be important to take into account. So it wouldn't surprise me if over time economic conditions become a part of that equation. But I do think affirmative action is quite important, and I think that we would be kidding ourselves if we said that a lot of the advances that we have seen with blacks becoming more viable players at the highest levels of corporate America were not a result of affirmative action. I don't think that would have happened if we hadn't had it, because I think the whole affirmative action debate has opened a lot of people's eyes and has made it something that people feel that they must think through as they consider how they manage and how they promote, and I just think that's really important.

bn: How about racism in America today -- do you feel that, with events such as the Rodney King affair and the O. J. Simpson trial, that more negative feelings exist now than ten years ago?

PTG: I think the dialogue has gotten more venomous, which is a shame. On both the left and the right, there are voices that are not looking for constructive solutions, they're just looking for a microphone. And so, I think, unfortunately, people of good will are not necessarily always the ones who are front and center when we have these debates about race. I illustrate this a bit in my book Blue Blood : There's this black activist minister who is perceived as using this racial tragedy for his own end and, similarly, there are people in the white community who are very quick to assume that if there's a black suspect, then that person has to be guilty, and so why are we talking about this any more? And clearly, the truth is somewhere in between those two things, but it's complicated. So one of the themes that runs through this book is that whenever there is a crime and race is an element, what gets lost in all the shouting is what is real justice and what is the real truth, and who's really looking for the truth and who's just looking for an opportunity to grandstand.

bn: Tell us a little bit about the plot of Blue Blood .

PTG: Well, Nikki Chase, a 30-year-old Harvard professor, gets a phone call in the middle of the night from one of her best friends, who happens to be a Yale dean, who has just learned that his wife has been found dead on a deserted street in New Haven. Nikki's friend and his wife are both white, and the wife is found in a poor black neighborhood. Complicating issues is that the woman who's dead is a pretty outspoken conservative commentator and was controversial in her own right before she was killed. Because she was found in a black neighborhood, there's a lot of pressure to find a suspect quickly, and attention quickly turns to a black student of the deceased. And so there are lots of layers of race and politics and gender that come into play, and Nikki is drawn to New Haven to try to help her friend, but she quickly gets drawn into the investigation because she's interested in all of these things, and so natural curiosity just pushes her to get more involved. Nikki's in a bit of a unique situation because, since she has these impeccable academic credentials, she can move pretty freely among the Yale faculty members, but at the same time, because she's black, she can actually insert herself into the black community there. And so she has this unique vantage point, and that's what allows her to solve the mystery in the end.

bn: And you mentioned that Nikki's next mystery will be set at Princeton. Do you have a title yet?

PTG: The working title is Burnt Orange [laughs], but we'll see what I come up with. The basic outline: There's a faculty member at Princeton who's in the Afro-American Studies department who ends up dead, and it turns out that his death occurred on the eve of his joining the Harvard Afro-American Studies department.

bn: So that's how Nikki gets involved.

PTG: That's how she gets drawn into it.

bn: Pamela, I want to thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us today. I truly enjoyedBlue Blood , and look forward to further Nikki Chase adventures.

PTG: Oh, well thank you. This was really fun.

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