Race, gender, and responsibility: the face of Billy Mudd

There’s been a lot of talk recently about race and diversity in fiction and movies—a controversy over casting a black Hermione, the question of Shadow’s race in American Gods,MV5BMTQ4NjcwMTcyOF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNTA3MjM4OQ@@._V1_UX214_CR0,0,214,317_AL_

the troubling lack of actors of color in the nominations its for this year’s Oscars (#OscarSoWhite). And this month, the VBC have been talking (among other things) about the race of Billy Mudd in The Murder of Mary Russell.

In the Conan Doyle stories, most of the characters have no specific ethnic identity. Since Conan Doyle was British, and wrote for a British (and American) audience in Victorian times, it’s fair to say that he, his publishers, and his audience generally assumed that the characters were white/British, except when the story required a wicked Lascar, a mixed-race child (“The Yellow Face”), or the occasional stereotyped villain from America.

The problem is, Britain hasn’t been a completely white nation for a very long time.

I admit that as a writer, I tend not to think about what racial component goes into many of the people on my pages. In fact, although Mary Russell, Kate Martinelli, and some of the others have a certain amount of physical description, when it comes to the characters who are not given any clear indicators, I don’t think it matters much if the reader visualizes that person as Nordic, Nigerian, Filipino, or whatever that reader sees in the mirror each morning.

Sometimes race does matter in a story. If that’s the case, as a reader I expect to be told, either explicitly or by knowing that the character’s name is Chu, Singh, or Katanapoulis. If the author intends a Chu of Nigerian heritage or a Jim Jones who is female, that needs to be made clear fairly early on. (Although it’s part of the charm of Hilary Tamar that we don’t know which gender s/he occupies—and remember when the part of Lawrence Block’s burglar Bernie Rhodenbarr—a Jewish man’s name if ever there was one—was played not by Bruce Willis, but by Whoopi Goldberg?) Neil Gaiman’s Shadow Moon (American Gods) is consistently described as mixed race, with light grey eyes and a swarthy tone to his skin, and his mother having had sickle-cell disease would suggest African-American rather than Romany, Mediterranean, Native American, or any of the other shades of brown.

(Aside: That doesn’t mean there isn’t some justification for the confusion when Ricky Whittle was cast in the part. When Shadow spends the winter in a small town in the northeastern US, I don’t remember any particular mention being made of his standing out to any degree, which [particularly when I first read it, fifteen years ago] I’d have expected. Not in a city, maybe, or in the South, but in a small northern town? No doubt that lack of any passing comment on the part of the town sheriff, or a shopkeeper, or Shadow himself, rather… er, colored my perception of just how dark his shade of skin would be.)

If the author has provided no hints, often the case with minor characters, I’m like most readers in that I assign the character my own skin by default: white.

But about Billy Mudd. Writing a series as I do, I’m forever discovering things about my established characters. Who knew Mrs Hudson was Clarissa? I sure didn’t, until I wrote The Murder of Mary Russell. And did I know Billy was black, or at any rate, mixed race?   Had no idea. And although that’s something Conan Doyle might have mentioned in his stories—might have—nothing in the Holmes canon says he’s blonde or freckled. So when I came across the following descriptive sign in the Museum of London—

—I realized that this was where Billy came from. (Sorry it’s blurry, it describes the image as: “An African crossing sweeper, St Martin’s Lane, c1830. In the 1780s there were about 5,000 people of African origin living in London….” Click on it to see it larger.)

Does it matter, that Billy’s skin has more melanin than mine? No—and yet it does. Just as it doesn’t matter that a number of characters I’ve written are gay and lesbian, and yet at the same time, yes, it does. (And again, if the character’s orientation doesn’t come up in the course of the story, I figure that some ten percent of the reading public is gay, so probably ten percent of the characters are, too. Have fun choosing which ones!) Just like, who cares if a white actor plays a role that, in the book, is unspecified? But when all those unspecified roles are filled with white faces, it very much does matter.

We’re a world of many peoples, all kinds of colors and shapes. Sometimes we writers need to remember that, and celebrate the variety.


  1. M. Smith on May 21, 2016 at 3:19 am

    There could well have been a person of color in a small northeastern US town. Many free persons of color and escaped slaves stopped short of the Canadian border, often intermarrying with Native Americans and white bondspeople. I think Census records will show quite a large number of such communities with very small numbers of nonwhite citizens. BTW, I guessed Lee’s gender very early in the first novel and thought you were forward thinking. My librarian colleagues thought I’d lost my mind when I posited it.

    • Laurie King on May 21, 2016 at 9:31 am

      Yes, naturally there would have been persons of color all over from early on. I merely said that a stranger with dark skin would have been comment-worthy, in such a small town.

  2. Tim H. on May 21, 2016 at 10:54 am

    Perhaps more than the usual degree of tolerance was one of the benefits of the town’s protector, though granted at a hideous price.

  3. TheMadLibrarian on May 25, 2016 at 5:43 pm

    For some reason I immediately mentally cast Billy as a rather scrawny, scruffy young man of African descent, who was also sharp as two tacks.

  4. Elaine on June 14, 2016 at 2:35 pm

    I find that unless the author clearly states a character’s appearance, or if it has already been established by the context, it isn’t something I think about. If I’m engrossed in the story then it’s the personalities that count for me, rather than appearance. I love Mary Russell but haven’t tried to fill out the details of her appearance beyond what we learn from the details you give us. Ursula le Guin has talked about the subject of appearance, too, and seemed rather amused that some people just assumed that the characters in the Earthsea series were all white (she talks about it here: http://structomagazine.co.uk/interviews/ursula-k-le-guin/

    I’d be really interested to know what you feel about the narrations of your Russell series by Jenny Sterlin, because for me the quality of a narration has such an impact on my visualisation of the characters. Do you enjoy the audiobooks, or maybe feel your characters have become something different from what you had intended? I really enjoy Jenny Sterlin’s narrations, but wonder whether authors get a little anxious about the prospect of audio versions.

    Greatly looking forward to the next episode…!

    • Laurie King on June 14, 2016 at 2:54 pm

      I’ve only listened to one or two of the audio books, since whenever I look )or listen) too closely to my published stories, I end up despairing over the mistakes–either those I’ve made, or minor changes in interpretation that I don’t agree with. However, in general I think Jenny does a great job. Certainly the fans love her, and she’s a great person as well.
      And yes, it’s amusing how often people will cover over small suggestions in character that the author has put there. For example, I doubt that many people realize how many of my characters are gay.

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