Category Archives: Himes, Chester

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

Classic Himes

Penguin is bringing out the first five of Chester Himes’ Harlem Noir novels in its modern classics range. I’m delighted by this. The Himes’ novels are underrated and not particularly well known now, but they really are classics and they do deserve much more attention than they receive.

I’ve written about the first two novels here. Here’s the new Penguin covers:

Happy as I am about this I am a little surprised to see five making classic status at once. Penguin treated Ambler similarly of course but each of his were stand alone novels. Still, it’s welcome recognition for a neglected writer and that’s always a good thing.

On a more personal aside, I’m still presently reading Proust’s second volume. Unfortunately work pressures meant that I haven’t made the progress I’d hoped so it’s still not finished. Thankfully it is very good. I did however read a small Penguin collection of Jean Rhys short stories which I shall write up soon.

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Filed under Crime Fiction, Himes, Chester

Keep cool, fool

The Real Cool Killers, by Chester Himes

I read (and wrote about, here) the first of Chester Himes’ Harlem detective novels back in March 2009. It was a larger than life portrait of 1950s Harlem that showed it as an absurdist abyss of poverty and violence. It was lively, funny and ultimately very angry. I liked it.

Himes didn’t just write genre fiction, in fact he didn’t even mostly write genre fiction, but it’s the Harlem detective novels for which he’s (not very well) remembered. That’s probably unfair, but serious works about the impact of racism on labour relations just aren’t as easy a sell as fast moving crime novels with oversized guns and frequently comic mayhem.

Well, it’s a year and a half later and here I am reading another of his genre novels, and I still haven’t read one of the serious ones. The funniest thing about The Real Cool Killers though is that for all it’s lurid excess and mordant humour it comes with a sucker punch. It’s hard hitting, exciting and grotesque but by the end of it all it makes real points about Harlem life. It’s a serious novel after all.

Here’s the setup. A white cola salesman named Galen is in a black bar in Harlem watching the locals dance to the jukebox. A black man takes exception to Galen’s presence and tries to cut his throat with a knife. The bartender protects Galen, and ends up cutting the knifeman’s arm off with a short-handled axe.

Galen leaves the bar, but outside gets chased down the street by another black man named Sonny who’s firing a pistol after him. Soon after, Galen is killed, shot dead in front of a teenage street gang called the Real Cool Moslems (none of whom are moslem). It looks like Galen was killed by Sonny, but Sonny’s pistol only fired blanks – he was high and looking to give someone a scare. That means there was at least a third person after Galen. It also means it really wasn’t Galen’s night.

By the time Harlem detectives Grave Digger and Coffin Ed turn up there’s a huge crowd gathered. Matters get out of hand with the teen gang. Coffin Ed opens fire and kills an unarmed gang member and shoots a bystander in the leg. It’s chaos, it’s Harlem in the 1950s and it sets the tone for a novel the entire story of which takes place in just one night.

It takes a while for the police to realise that Sonny’s gun wasn’t loaded, so when he escapes from custody they set up a dragnet over the whole area and start house to house searches for him. Nothing can get in or out. Meanwhile, Grave Digger carries out his own investigation using his local contacts and street knowledge. He has to work alone. Coffin Ed is under suspension for his two shootings and it turns out that might be for the best because as Grave Digger digs deeper he starts to realise that Coffin Ed’s own daughter may be somehow involved.

I have to admit, I rather groaned when I found out that Coffin Ed’s daughter might be involved. Even in the 1950s it must already have been a cliché. Thankfully it’s the only one and it’s at least used well.

The novel follows two main strands. One is Coffin Ed kicking down doors and beating up anyone who might know anything, determined to find out what went down. The other follows the Real Cool Moslems – black teenagers who dress up as fake arabs and who luck into hiding Sonny after he gets away from the police. Both strands get steadily darker as the night goes on. Coffin Ed finds out that there were good reasons for Galen to have enemies. Sonny finds that he might have been better off in police custody than the gang’s as their leader Sheik starts thinking of ways to amuse himself with his captive.

This is the opposite of the traditional cosy crime novel. Here the criminals aren’t cold blooded, they’re hyped up on drugs, furious or just plain malicious for the sake of it. They act on impulse and try to cover up afterwards and generally they’re not particularly competent. Grave Digger too is no Sherlock Holmes. He’s not stupid but his way of finding out whodunnit mostly involves beating people up until they tell him what they know. The whole picture is one of savage brutality and casual violence. The only white faces present are the police and the occasional visitor from outside Harlem come to enjoy an illicit thrill that they can’t get back in their part of town. Here, a white club goer complains about Grave Digger roughing up a witness in front of him, and Grave Digger responds:

“I’m just a cop,” Grave Digger said thickly. “If you white people insist on coming up to Harlem where you force colored people to live in vice-and-crime-ridden slums, it’s my job to see that you are safe.”

Grave Digger is no politer to other black men. Later that night he returns to the diner where Galen’s evening began. A couple of seats are cleared for him. The men previously in those seats object until they realise they’re dealing with a cop.

Both rose with alacrity, picked up their glasses and vacated the stools, grinning at Grave Digger obsequeiously.
“Don’t show me your teeth,” Grave Digger snarled. “I’m no dentist. I don’t fix teeth. I’m a cop. I’ll knock your teeth out.”
The men doused their grins and slunk away.

Grave Digger spends the whole novel angry. What’s fuelling that anger though is something more than the lies he’s told and the ugliness of what led to Galen’s death. What really makes Grave Digger angry is Harlem itself. It’s a place born of inequality, a place where he’s assured by someone that Galen wouldn’t have been killed for sleeping with a man’s wife because sleeping with a white man doesn’t count as infidelity – it’s just an easy way to bring some more money into the family home. Harlem is the zoo and the whites are keepers or visitors, all of them wondering why the animals behave so badly while making sure they don’t get out of their cages.

As the novel reached the end, the pointlessness of it all became inescapable. This is a book in which a fair number of people die and in which a lot of others go down for some serious time. It’s all meaningless. It’s just another night in Harlem and that’s the sucker punch I talked about at the opening of this blog entry. Everything that’s happens during the long Harlem night is exciting, it’s hardboiled, but it’s also futile and ugly and Himes wants the reader to know that. As dawn breaks the tone shifts and it’s suddenly apparent that all this adventure adds up to is some ruined lives and some ended ones. Crime novels are exciting to read, but Himes wants the reader to know that living in one isn’t nearly as entertaining.

Uptown in Harlem, the sun was shining on the same drab scene it illuminated every other morning at eleven o’clock. No one missed the few expendable colored people being held on various charges in the big new granite skyscraper jail on Centre Street that had replaced the old New York City tombs.

The Real Cool Killers

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

A good feeling is a sign of death, Daddy-o

Chester Himes is a new author to me, one that I had never heard of until I saw A Rage in Harlem recommended in a Waterstone’s Staff Pick.

However, that reflects more on me than it does on Chester Himes, because some investigation reveals that he is in fact a highly regarded African-American novelist with some forty years of output, not least among which is a series of detective novels collectively referred to as the Harlem Detective series. Himes’ fiction often dealt with issues of race and justice, issues he was perhaps unusually qualified to speak to having spent eight years in jail himself for armed robbery.

A Rage in Harlem is the first of the Harlem Detective series. Written and set in 1957, in it we first meet his two detective characters, Gravedigger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson. In later novels I understand they take a more central role, but here they are closer to plot elements than characters, larger than life forces of nature the presence of which drives the actions of others. The real protagonist of A Rage in Harlem is one Jackson, a “square” and churchgoing man, honest and with a profound faith in his girlfriend Imabelle.

As the novel opens, Jackson has been introduced by Imabelle to men who claim to be able to raise ten dollar bills to hundred dollar bills, using a secret technique they possess. As they proceed, they are raided by a man claiming to be a police officer, Jackson is apprehended but the other men run taking their equipment and Imabelle with them. The policeman asks for a bribe from Jackson in return for letting him go, and to get the money Jackson is forced to steal money from his employer’s safe. To get that back, Jackson goes gambling, and loses everything he has (in one of the better written gambling sequences I have read). By the end of this, fairly short in terms of the novel, sequence of events Jackson is penniless, a thief and believes that he is pursued by the police.

It is not giving anything away to reveal that the policeman is one of the gang of swindlers, that Jackson is the subject of a grift, and that he may well be one of the most gullible men in Harlem. All that said, he decides that Imabelle would not have gone with the others willingly, and so with the aid of his brother, a con man and junkie who cross dresses as a nun to swindle the poor by selling modern day indulgences, he sets out to rescue her.

A Rage in Harlem then is a novel of extremes. Goldie, Jackson’s brother, is an extraordinary character. He lives with two other professional criminals who cross dress as part of their own grifts, and they inhabit a world that squares like Jackson cannot comprehend (if they could, they wouldn’t be squares). Many characters are grotesques, many scenes are grimly comic, absurd even with unbelievable elements happily thrown in. At the same time, all this sits with a convincing depiction of life in Harlem in the late 1950s, a life often of grinding poverty, poor education and remarkable isolation from the wider New York City.

The language of the book is vivid, as you would expect, here we have an exchange between Jackson and a taxi driver:

A black boy was driving. Jackson gave him the address of Imabelle’s sister in the Bronx. The black boy made a U-turn in the icy street as though he liked skating, and took off like a lunatic.
‘I’m in a hurry,’ Jackson said.
‘I’m hurrying, ain’t I?’ the black boy called over his shoulder.
‘But I ain’t in a hurry to get to heaven.’
‘We ain’t going to heaven.’
‘That’s what I’m scared of.’

Similarly, here Jackson trades remarks with a shoe-shine boy:

‘Man, you know one thing, I feel good,’ he said to the shoe-shine boy.
‘A good feeling is a sign of death, Daddy-o,’ the boy said.
Jackson put his faith in the Lord and headed for the dice game upstairs on 126th Street, around the corner.

As the novel progresses, Jackson essentially falls through a crack in his world, moving from the realm of god fearing and church going people to the world of hustlers, con artists, pimps and killers. He moves from the world of prey, to the world of predators, and since he is by nature prey he spends a good part of the novel running from people and desparately hoping not to be brutally killed, for brutal death is rarely far away in Himes’ Harlem and in the course of the novel a fair number of characters do die – as often as not from sheer bad luck or meeting the wrong people at the wrong time.

Gravedigger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson move through this world of casual violence and relentless criminality as part of the forces devoted to keeping some kind of order in place, they are both themselves black, coloured detectives as the people of the time term them. The police department is largely white, the white officers whenever depicted have neither understanding of nor sympathy for the blacks of Harlem, Jones and Johnson don’t have much more sympathy than their white colleagues, but they do understand and that coupled with their remarkable capacity for violence makes them effective and feared men.

They took their tribute, like all real cops, from the established underworld catering to the essential needs of the people – gamekeepers, madams, streetwalkers, numbers writers, numbers bankers. But they were rough on purse snatchers, muggers, burglars, con men, and all strangers working any racket.

Discussing the attitudes of the police, takes me to the depiction of race in the novel generally. As is common in novels of this period and earlier dealing with issues of race, black characters are routinely described in terms of how black they are. One may have a coal coloured face, another be an ordinary brown, all of which is essentially merely descriptive, but then a sharp line is drawn between black people who are variously brown skinned and those who are “yellows” or “high yellows”, people whose skin is light in shade. High yellows are seen as more attractive than the brown skinned, and characters (including black characters, almost everyone in the book is black) will refer to others as a “high yellow” making distinctions as finely honed as would be found in any caste system. At one point a bystander quotes an old folk saying, as follows:

Black gal make a freight train jump de track
But a yaller girl make a preacher Ball de Jack

I have seen this distinction made before, in the works of writers such as Hammett and Spillane and in the songs of artists like Leadbelly (who in one sings of his “yellow girl”). A fairly formal differentiation between people according to the degree of blackness present in their skin tone appears to have been fairly common in American life in this period. For all the distinctions drawn, however, between the brown skinned and the yellow skinned, the key difference is with the white skinned. In this book blacks and whites barely communicate, the black characters occasionally interact with white policemen and that unwillingly, their world is a self-contained one and points of contact between black and white experience are few.

Life in Harlem is difficult, poverty is endemic, the police are feared and never assisted – which given they spend most of the novel arresting anyone in sight who looks a bit out of place is hardly surprising. At one point Jackson flees through an alley, slipping in mud, tearing his clothes, getting covered in blood and filth and reduced to rags. When he hits the street, he is not the worst dressed man in it, his appearance is not of itself remarkable enough to attract the near constant police attention.

Colored people passed along the dark sidewalks, slinking cautiously past the dark, dangerous doorways, heads bowed, every mother’s child of them looking as though they had trouble.
Colored folks and trouble, Jackson thought, like two mules hitched to the same wagon.

With poverty comes violence, at one point Jackson goes to a rough bar, where he is surrounded by whores and grifters, marked out by muggers, a whole ecology of crime clustering around an obvious mark. A fight breaks out, to the entertainment of all (the people of Harlem here love watching the troubles of others), and swiftly descends into farce:

Two rough-looking men jumped about the floor, knocking over chairs and tables, cutting at one another with switchblade knives. The customers at the bar screwed their heads about to watch, but held on to their places and kept their hands on their drinks. The whores rolled their eyes and looked bored.
One joker slashed the other’s arm. A big-lipped wound opened in the tight leather jacket, but nothing came out but old clothes – two sweaters, three shirts, a pair of winter underwear. The second joker slashed back, opened a wound in the front of his foe’s canvas jacket. But all that came out of the wound was dried printer’s ink from the layers of old newspapers the joker had wrapped around him to keep warm. They kept slashing away at one another like two rag dolls battling in buck dancing fury, spilling old clothes and last week’s newsprint instead of blood.

As well as race, poverty, brutality and violence, A Rage in Harlem is also full of almost slapstick humour. A car chase in which multiple squad cars pursue a fleeing hearse, which proceeds to careen through a central market scattering livestock, vegetables and meat in its wake and which en route loses its contents including the corpse of a freshly murdered man becomes a form of comic sequence, over the top, grim in that the driver is genuinely terrified but funny because it becomes ludicrous in the extremity of the description. Himes himself described his detective series as “absurd”, his Harlem becomes at times a grotesquerie, filled with freaks and morbid humour. Jones and Johnson are barely people, closer to caricatures of grim law enforcement, Jackson is astonishingly and continuingly gullible, Goldie so unredeemable he spends a fair time drugging Jackson so he can look for Imabelle without interference as Goldie has come to believe she has a wealth of gold on her person. Characters here are not subtly crafted portraits from life.

Well, except one character, Harlem itself. Harlem convinces, Harlem is really the main character of the novel, it is a novel about Harlem, its absurdities and cruelties. And it is in the descriptions of Harlem that some of the book’s best passages are to be found:

Looking eastward from the towers of Riverside Church, perched among the university buildings on the high banks of the Hudson River, in a valley far below, waves of gray rooftops distort the perspective like the surface of a sea. Below the surface, in the murky waters of fetid tenements, a city of black people who are convulsed in desparate living, like the voracious churning of millions of hungry cannibal fish. Blind mouths eating their own guts. Stick in a hand and draw back a nub.
That is Harlem.
The farther east it goes, the blacker it gets.

I’m not sure where I’ll go next with Himes. My (perhaps incorrect) impression is that he wrote what he considered serious fiction, and separately his detective fiction. I enjoyed the detective fiction, perhaps despite and perhaps in part because of its grotesque elements, his serious fiction is doubtless enjoyable too and it would be interesting to see how it compares. Still, I would not wish to give the impression that the crime fiction is not worth reading, it is, and it is that for which he is most famous. There is real skill here, the occasional extremity of description is intentional, not inadvertent and Himes has things to say which are I think worth listening to.

I link here to an essay I found online on Himes work, I particularly liked the reference to him “coupling craft with a searing and sometimes brutal black-humored “fabulism,””, a line I wish I had come up with myself as it definitely captures something of this work.

A Rage in Harlem

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