“Death always doubles off”

The Crazy Kill, by Chester Himes

Over Christmas I read an article which quoted PD James. She talked about how the pleasure of crime fiction was the knowledge that by the end of the book order would be restored. Bad things happen, but good wins out. The world is, ultimately, just.

That’s true of some crime fiction, but not of any crime fiction I enjoy reading. It’s not true of Chester Himes. In the 1950s Harlem of Himes’ novels the bad guys generally do get punished, but so do several other people along the way and there’s no restoration of order because there was never any order to begin with.

Here’s the opening of The Crazy Kill:

It was four o’clock, Wednesday morning, July 14th, in Harlem, U.S.A. Seventh Avenue was as dark and lonely as haunted graves.
A colored man was stealing a bag of money.

The bag is full of change. It’s on the seat of a double-parked car, just near a cop on patrol and a grocery store manager who’s opening up and will be back in a moment to pick up the bag and take it inside. Problem is, a bag doesn’t have to be left alone long in Harlem to go missing.

Nearby at a wake Reverent Short is leaning out of a first-story window watching proceedings. He leans too far out, falls and ends up in a large basket of bread sitting outside the bakery below.

The Reverend’s fine, but when he returns to the wake he does so with what he claims to be a vision. He saw a dead man, and when the partygoers go outside they find right in that same bread basket the body of Valentine Haines, stabbed through the heart with the knife still jutting out.

Before long everyone’s wondering who killed Val. Was it Johnny, local gangster and Val’s business partner? Was it Dulcy, Johnny’s girl and Val’s sister? What about Chink Charlie? He’s got the hots for Dulcy and he owns a knife just like the one sticking out of the corpse. Everyone says Val had no real enemies, but there seem to be a lot of people who might be in the frame for his death.

The Reverend’s throwing out accusations and stirring up trouble; Dulcy doesn’t seem to mind Chink Charlie paying her a little attention; and Johnny’s a jealous man with a violent temper. If things carry on as they are Val’s body won’t be the only one with a knife sticking out of it. Grave Digger Jones and Coffin Ed are soon on the scene and applying pressure.

The questioning was conducted in a soundproof room without windows on the first floor. This room was known to the Harlem underworld as the “Pigeon Nest.” It was said that no matter how tough an egg was, if they kept him in there long enough he would hatch out a pigeon.

I won’t say more about the plot. It’s only there because without it nothing would happen. As ever with Himes the real substance is in the characters, and in the sense of Harlem life. Johnny is a successful gambler and gets a lot of respect, even from the police. He wears sharp suits and drives a fancy car. The Reverend says, and believes, that he’s sworn off all alcohol, but he drinks a nerve tonic of his own devising which is a mix of hard drugs and harder liquor.

This is a Harlem filled with gambling joints, whorehouses, the Holy Roller Church where the Reverend preaches and where the congregation roll around on the floor when the spirit moves them. It’s Summer, it’s hot as hell, and tempers are running high. The only place there’s any relief is in the bars and gambling joints where people like Johnny spend their time:

Inside it was cool, and so dark he had to take off his sun glasses on entering. The unforgettable scent of whisky, whores and perfume filled his nostrils, making him feel relaxed.

In a sense this is Damon Runyon territory. It’s a different decade, a different part of New York and everyone’s black, but otherwise he’d recognise a lot of this. Just look at the names some of the characters have: Chink Charlie, Baby Sis, Reverend Short, Valentine Haines, Deep South, Mamie Pullen, Dulcy, Johnny, Pigmeat, Poor Boy, Doll Baby, Alamena, and of course Grave Digger Jones and Coffin Ed themselves.

The difference though is that Chester Himes doesn’t write comic novels. His characters have none of the loveable nature of Runyon’s rogues. Take away Runyon’s humour, and his affection, and the milieu isn’t so different. Damon Runyon after all portrays a world in which people scheme, cheat, take crazy risks and kill. Runyon does it with a laugh. Himes’ books have plenty of laughs, but hollow ones, and you can smell his characters’ sweat.

There’s always a question with novels forming part of a series as to where one should start. With the Harlem cycle the answer has to be at the beginning with A Rage in Harlem. The answer definitely shouldn’t be The Crazy Kill. It’s solid, but probably the weakest of the three I’ve read so far.

Jones and Ed barely feature, which isn’t vastly problematic as Himes’ interest is always more in his criminals than his detectives, but their presence sets up expectations about the kind of novel this is which aren’t quite realised. The plot, clearly intentionally, makes very little sense which is fine as Himes is all about the atmosphere but does make what happens all a little random (which again is clearly intentional, but even so is a little unsatisfying).

Although The Crazy Kill features a crime, and detectives who solve that crime, it’s not really a detective novel. At the end I found myself wondering if it would have been better with a little more detecting, or with none at all. It’s messing with Mr. In-Between that causes the problems there are here.

In writing this I found two reviews online by other bloggers, here and here. That first link has two extremely well chosen quotes and so I’d strongly suggest at least following that to get a little more of a taste of Himes’ prose. Otherwise, if you’ve read the first two Himes and enjoyed them then you should absolutely read this, but if you’re not already a fan this won’t be the one to convert you.

The cover up above is from the Vintage Crime edition, which I don’t particularly recommend as it has absurdly large margin spaces. There’s a Penguin Modern Classics edition now available, and if I were buying this now that’s what I would get. For the curious there’s also apparently a biography of Himes written by James Sallis, which makes it rather fitting that this review follows my review of Drive.

On a very final note, I found two alternative covers for this online, which I thought I’d share because they’re just great examples of vintage cover art. Particularly the first.

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17 Comments

Filed under African-American Literature, Crime Fiction, Hardboiled, Himes, Chester, Noir

17 responses to ““Death always doubles off”

  1. I agree with you about crime resolution–obviously we have different tastes from PD James.

    I haven’t read any Chester Himes yet–been meaning to. I know someone who has read a considerable number of his titles and finds some excellent and others rather poor.

  2. This might well be one of the ones they find poor then. I wouldn’t go that far but as I say above it is the weakest of the three I’ve read so far.

  3. Mrs. KfC and I are working our way through the P.D. James collection of DVDs featuring Adam Dalgliesh and I would have to say they are proof positive of the fallacy of the quote you cite in the opening paragraph of this review. True, there is an “order” that has been restored at the end of each episode, but many people have been damaged along the way and the “new order” may of may not be just. Probably it isn’t, since we still have six episodes to go and I doubt that many of them, if any, are crime free.

    All of which suggests to me that the quote probably wasn’t as complete as it might have been (note that I am carefully avoiding any question about whether the author’s mind might be slipping somewhat now that she is in her 90s).

  4. Perhaps it’s truer in the books, or perhaps not. All quotes are partial and sometimes the real meaning is lost in the quoting.

    The reimposition of justice doesn’t suggest though that there won’t be future crimes. There will be and terrible ones, or there’s no next book. It simply suggests that those responsible will be caught and punished.

    Still, even if the quote wasn’t properly reflective of PD James’ actual view on the matter (and that wouldn’t surprise me, it did seem a bit pat for such a well regarded writer) it at least provided a useful hook for opening the review. I always find the first paragraph the hardest. How to start?

  5. Probably no big surprise Kevin, but I’m a fan of the Dalgleish mysteries–some are weaker than others but all well worth watching.

  6. I have A Rage in Harlem at home (in French translation, La reine des pommes, literally The Apple Queen) but I haven’t had time to read it so far.

    This one is entitled Couché dans le pain (Lying in the bread). The French titles of Noir fiction are always weird.

  7. I did not mean to imply that you had simplified the P.D. James — I do suspect the writer of where you read it originally might have.

    On a personal note, I would also have to say that more than 40 years after writing my first lead paragraph that got published in print, I still don’t find it any easier. Then again, once you do get a good one the rest of the review just writes itself.

  8. Love the idea that no order is restored because there was no order to start with. It seems to me that with modern crime fiction (that I watch rather than read) order is often not restored or, if it is, it’s only partial or questionable. Does that reflect the cynicism of our times? Hmmm…but then this book isnt of our time is it? So I’m speaking through my hat. Therefore, all I’ll say is that I love the covers and love the name. If it’s his real name he had to be a crime writer didn’t he?

  9. Lying in the bread is actually a fairly logical title, since the Reverend Short falls into a bread basket and Val’s body is found lying in that same basket.

    The apple queen is, I admit, less obvious to me.

    Kevin, I didn’t take you that way. On first paras, it’s not that different in legal drafting. If you have to start from scratch with no useful precedents, it’s the first bit of drafting that’s hardest. Often I end up writing something, then once I’m into the doc properly going back and revising that first bit. So it goes.

    WG, I think cosies are less popular than they once were, which may reflect our own less settled age. Whether our age is genuinely less settled though, or our predecessors were just better at keeping a lid on things, I’m not sure.

    Then again, Hammett after all was far from cosy.It may be that the reassuring novels always dominate, but those that come down to us over the decades are those that try for something more.

    Cosies do still sell, and I suspect sell well. They’re a bit off my radar so I tend not to see reviews of them but I think they still have their market and fans. I imagine there’s whole blogs pretty much devoted to them.

    I agree on the name. His destiny was written in his birth certificate.

  10. gaskella

    I read this particular novel many years ago, and recently acquired 2 anthologies of Himes with 6 novels in total. I remember enjoying it, so I hope that if/when I start again at the beginning with ‘A rage in Harlem’ that I’ll enjoy them even more.

  11. I think you will gaskella. There’s not much by way of continuity, but there’s a little bit and A Rage in Harlem really is very good.

  12. I am required to read a PD James in the none too distant future, which is not a prospect I am particularly looking forward to. I have read (and watched) the Dalgliesh stuff in the past and do not seem to have many fond memories.

    To be fair I probably wouldn’t enjoy the Himes either, since crime-solving is not my preferred subject matter for a novel. (Lack of detecting would be a definite virtue from my point of view.) Still, the world view you describe in Himes appeals to my aesthetics and I will be interested to see where the James’ novel sits on the scale of gritty realism.

  13. Thanks Lee. Nice link. I left a comment there.

    For a moment I thought you’d started a literary blog.

  14. leroyhunter

    That Ellroy clip is priceless. He just genuinely loves offending people.

    Where I’ve encountered personas like that (few, and somewhat less extreme then the Demon Dawg) I always find it interesting to try and figure out how much is genuine and how much is put on to sustain the shock (and the shocker’s enjoyment).

  15. No problem: any conversation about those writers has me desperate to read their stuff again (or try a Goodis or Raymond – what’s the best ‘in’ there, Max?).

    Loved that Jim Thompson quote as well: “There are 32 ways to write a novel and I’ve used them all, but there is only one plot: things are not as they seem.”

  16. The best in to Goodis is hard to say, because I’m not sure I’ve found it yet. Probably the novel the guy at that link suggests. That said, I did have some comments here recommending the best Goodis to start with so I’ll see if I can dig those out again.

    On Raymond it should be He Died with His Eyes Open. After I write up the fifth one I’ll do an overview post of the entire Factory novels sequence, but that will likely be sometime in February. The first is the most intellectually bracing and exciting, the fourth the most challenging. The second and third have their virtues, but aren’t at the same level. The fifth is ok, but maybe a bit unnecessary. I’m not sure the first four left much for the fifth to say.

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