Reviewed by Annabel
I first discovered the mad world of Chester Himes’s Harlem in an old Allison & Busby paperback of The Crazy Kill, the third novel of his Harlem series featuring detectives Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones back in the 1990s. I wouldn’t be the first to compare Himes sense of dark humour to that of the Coen brothers; the novel was indeed crazy and very funny. I resolved to look out for more in the series, as they were out of print at the time. Penguin reissued some in their Modern Classics black & white livery in 2011, but now they’ve reprinted five of them again, with glorious covers featuring details from a superb collaged painting called The Block by Harlem artist Romane Bearden which hangs in the Met (see here).
Himes was born in Missouri in 1909 and served seven and a half years for armed robbery in his twenties. He had started to write in prison, had some stories published and a couple of novels, but it was a struggle as a writer. He decamped to post-war Paris, where he wrote his Harlem novels from the late 1950s through the 1960s: they were first published in French and translated initially for the American market.
A Rage in Harlem
The first of the series, published in 1957, is now known as A Rage in Harlem, but its French title was La Reine des pommes (The Queen of fools) and its first US title was For Love of Imabelle; she is the main female character.
The plot revolves around the gullible Jackson, who has ‘borrowed’ money from his undertaker employer, to be converted from 10$ bills into $100s – the ‘washing’ is a conjuring trick of course and he loses everything. His girl is Imabelle, who has stolen a trunk full of ‘gold’ (of course you know it’s not!) and run away from her husband, who is a con man involved in a scam to sell gold stock to Black people. The other character of note is Goldy, Jackson’s brighter twin brother, who makes a living impersonating a nun and collecting money for the ‘Sisters of Mercy’.
He jangled his coin box and murmured in his husky, prayerful voice, ‘Give to the Lord. Give to the poor.’ Whenever anyone looked at him suspiciously he quoted from Revelation, ‘ “That ye may eat the flesh of kings.” ‘
What with stealing the money from the undertaker, and Imabelle having that chest of gold, everyone is looking for Jackson, who has to enlist Goldy’s help to move the trunk – in a hearse no less, which leads to a rather unique car chase! There are fights aplenty, peppered with gunfire – there will be casualties – but the miracle is that Jackson and Imabelle come out the other side unscathed but broke, Jackson even gets his job back. It’s all done by Himes in madcap style at break-neck speed.
Himes’s Black detective duo have a lesser role to play in this first book, but they do know how to make an entrance – arriving at the precinct as a fight breaks out in the booking hall.
‘Straighten up!’ Grave Digger shouted in a stentorian voice.
‘Count off!’ Coffin Ed yelled.
Both of them drew their pistols at the same time and put a fusillade into the ceiling, which was already filled with holes they’d shot into it before.
The sudden shooting in the jammed room scared hell out of prisoners and cops alike. Everybody froze.
‘As you were!’ Grave Digger shouted.
One key event, which reverberates throughout the series, occurs later in the novel. Grave Digger and Coffin Ed are on the trail of the con men when acid is thrown in Ed’s face, leading to permanent scarring. Grave Digger has to close the case without his partner.
Himes’s Harlem drips with atmosphere; the bars in which ‘honeysuckle-blues voices dripped stickily through jungle cries of wailing saxophones and screaming trumpets’ to the brothels, the brawlers, the card and dice games, beggars, thieves and dope pushers, but also the markets, food stalls and barber shops and folk going about their daily business. Harlem is just teeming with life – all of it!
The Real Cool Killers
Many of this series have been renamed; this one, the second from 1959, was Il pleut des coups durs (It rains hard blows) in its French edition, and If Trouble was Money at first in the US.
It begins with Ulysses Galen, a big ‘Greek’ white man, being attacked with a knife in a Harlem bar, accused of peddling little girls. The bar tender Big Smiley is forced to get his axe out and it ends up with the knifeman’s arm getting severed. Galen runs.
The white man ran past a group of eight Arabs at the corner of 127th Street. All of the Arabs had heavy, grizzly black beards. All wore bright green turbans, smoke-colored glasses, and ankle-length white robes. Their complexions ranged from stovepipe black to mustard. They were jabbering and gesticulating like a frenzied group of caged monkeys. The air was redolent with the pungent scent of marijuana.
But Galen can’t escape, being gunned down in the street by Sonny Pickens, who spots the man ‘what’s been messing around with my wife’. Coffin Ed and Grave Digger Jones get the call, but Sonny and the gang of Arabs, who they find are known as the ‘Real Cool Moslems’, are gone, leaving behind a gun that couldn’t kill anyone. As the police descend on the neighbourhood to smoke the gang and their suspect out, things get personal for the now-scarred Ed.
Himes starts to develop his two detectives more in this novel. Being the only two Black detectives in their division, they have a formidable, even heroic aura. Add in their long shiny-barrelled guns and their stock in trade ‘Straighten up!’ and ‘Count off!’ way of introducing themselves, they keep the streets of Harlem that bit safer for all folk of whatever colour. And, although they are not corrupt, they can look the other way occasionally to keep the peace. But be warned, some of their attitudes towards women are of the time.
The real star of these books though, over and above the two detectives, is Harlem itself. It’s just so colourful and full of life. I can’t wait to read on. They’re short novels of fewer than 225 pages, so readable in one sitting if – no, when – you get hooked.
It’s not a surprise that Himes’s Harlem novels were a hit when first published. That they are still so fresh and entertaining over sixty years later is an absolute pleasure, so much so that no less a voice than that of Samuel L Jackson narrates the new audiobook versions. (I’m tempted, I must say).
Annabel is co-founder and one of the Shiny editors, and was delighted to have rediscovered Chester Himes’s Harlem novels.
Chester Himes, A Rage in Harlem (Penguin, 2021. 978-0241521083, 224 pp., paperback. BUY at Blackwell’s.