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.