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.