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Eric Jerome Dickey, best-selling novelist, dies at 59
Vivid female characters became a hallmark of his career, which will encompass 29 novels when “The Son of Mr. Suleman” is published in April.

by Neil Genzlinger

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Eric Jerome Dickey, who mixed saucy, sexy and savvy into a formula that regularly landed his novels on bestseller lists and made him one of the most successful Black authors of the past quarter-century, died Sunday in Los Angeles. He was 59.

His publisher, Dutton, an imprint of Penguin Random House, said the cause was cancer. Dickey lived in Los Angeles.

After experimenting with careers as a software developer and a stand-up comic, Dickey drew considerable attention in 1996 with his first novel, “Sister, Sister,” the intertwined stories of three Black women told from each character’s point of view.

“Fresh, in-your-face and always outrageous,” Jane Henderson wrote in The St. Louis Post Dispatch, “‘Sister, Sister’ depicts a hard-edged reality in which women sometimes have their dreams shattered, yet never stop embracing tomorrow.”

The voices were so strong that many readers were surprised to find a man’s name on the cover.

“Everyone’s come out to the book signings; I think they just come to see if it’s really a guy that wrote the book,” Dickey told CNN in 1997.

Vivid female characters became a hallmark of his career, which will encompass 29 novels when “The Son of Mr. Suleman” is published in April.

“I actually get inside their heads and develop them from the inside out,” he said. “I read a lot of female magazines, anything from Cosmo to Essence. I watch my friends, female friends. I watch my girlfriends, the little bitty things they do. I listen to things they say, and a lot of times I read between the lines.”

The characters he created, especially the women, tended to have inner strength and a deadpan sense of humor.

“I thought I’d found my knight in shining armor,” a woman named Frankie says in “Naughtier Than Nice” (2015), describing a failed relationship, “but he was just another liar wrapped in aluminum foil.”

There was no lack of sex in Dickey’s stories. That same character, recalling a better time in the love affair gone wrong, mentions sneaking away from walking tours of Italy and the Vatican for quickies.

“Having an orgasm, then looking up and seeing incredible frescoes by Michelangelo was like being in God’s living room,” she says.

Dickey’s novels had a particularly strong following among young and middle-aged Black women, although his appeal extended to many demographics.

“I have a wide range of readers, from as young as 15 years up to 80 years old,” he told The Michigan Chronicle in 1999. “I remember meeting an elderly woman at a book signing, and she told me that my love scenes in one of my novels were so steamy that she had to put the book down. But she then quickly picked up the book again and proceeded to read on.”

Last year, writing in The Philadelphia Tribune about Dickey’s most recent novel at the time, “The Business of Lovers,” a story about two brothers and the women they are involved with, critic Terri Schlichenmeyer summed up his talent.

“These days, there are three things you can count on for sure,” she wrote. “The sun will rise tomorrow. It’ll rain somewhere in the world. And author Eric Jerome Dickey will tell a good story.”

Dickey was born July 7, 1961, in Memphis, Tennessee, and graduated from Carver High School there. After receiving a degree in computer programming at Memphis State University (now the University of Memphis) in 1983, he moved to Los Angeles to work as a software developer in the aerospace industry.

On the side, though, he looked for opportunities to indulge his creative ambitions, dabbling in acting and stand-up comedy and taking classes in creative writing. “Sister, Sister,” he said, was an expanded version of a short story he wrote for one such class. In a 1999 interview with The Commercial Appeal of Memphis, he described the unexpected evolution from short-story writer to novelist.

“I thought I was writing a short story, and it kept going,” he said. “I mean, if I had 25 pages with a beginning, a middle and an end, I thought that was long. You have these characters, and you say, ‘What if, what if, what if,’ and the thing starts to grow, and it grew to 300 pages, and I was sitting there looking at it thinking, ‘Man, this is a book.’”

Dickey’s novels often focused on relationships, romantic and otherwise, among young Black professionals, although his plots could be wide-ranging. His 2014 book, “A Wanted Woman,” was a thriller about a female assassin. It won an Image Award from the NAACP for outstanding work of fiction, and four of his other books were nominated for Image Awards.

Dickey’s survivors include four daughters.

Dickey wrote prolifically, averaging more than a novel a year. In 2006 he took a brief hiatus to write a six-issue comic book series for Marvel featuring the characters Storm and Black Panther. The request from Marvel came as a surprise.

“To me it was like getting a call from the president,” he told The Houston Chronicle. “I grew up on comics. I didn’t even know that I was on their radar.

“It was really kind of intimidating,” he added. “You’re thinking, Stan Lee and Gil Kane and the cats that I grew up with just admiring their work — this is the same company. And they are calling me, and it’s not a sales call for a subscription?”

His penchant for steamy sex scenes in his novels was well established, but, he said, the comic book assignment would not tap that particular skill.

“What I love about comics is that you still have that modesty,” he said. “You still fade to black.”

© 2021 The New York Times Company

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