Between the years of 1957 and 1969 Chester Himes wrote a series of crime novels/mysteries featuring two New York City police detectives working the Harlem beat: Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones. I’ve had the pleasure of reading two of them: All Shot Up (1960) and The Real Cool Killers (1959). These books are a rousing blend of action, over the top circumstances, humor, and even some subtle social commentary.
The Real Cool Killers takes place over a single night, detailing the investigation of the murder of a white man chased out of the Dew Drop Inn by a knife-wielding assailant. Suspects include Sonny, a black man seen pursuing the victim down the street while firing a pistol at him (which turns out to be loaded with blanks), as well as a gang of teenagers disguised in fake, bushy beards, turbans and long robes who call themselves the Real Cool Moslems. They have names like Sheik, Choo-Choo, Bones and Inky. Coffin Ed actually shoots and kills one of the Moslems in the opening scene (as well as wounding an innocent bystander) and is suspended, forcing Grave Digger Jones to unravel the mystery on his own. The trail Jones follows through the cold and gritty slums takes him to informants, drug dealers and pimps, and he slowly begins to uncover details that suggest the white victim maybe wasn’t such a “victim” after all. To speak much more of the plot will reveal too many of its twists and turns, and spoil the experience for anyone reading it. Suffice to say, it is classic Himes.
Many of Himes’ characters could be considered stereotypes. The jive-talkin’ inner city black folk. The thuggish and blatantly racist white cops. The madam with a good heart just trying to make her way. Through it all wade his stalwart detectives, Jones and Johnson, almost superheroic in the fear and respect they command and their efficiency in dealing with the riff raff. They aren’t afraid to make their way with fists, or fire off a few rounds from their massive revolvers if that is what it takes to get their point across. In Himes’ hands these archetypes work, and transcend the baggage that may otherwise come with them.
Much of what Himes writes would probably not fly too well in today’s arena of political correctness, and the overly sensitive may balk at some of it. Nonetheless, it is the world Himes knows, and he writes it better than most. He portrays scenes and circumstances that may seem overtly comical, until one looks just a little below the surface and realizes he is speaking of some higher truth. Chester Himes lived much of his life under circumstances not typical for most writers, particularly when one considers the racial tone of the era, lending a degree of authenticity to his work that few other writers could match. Born in 1909 in Missouri, he went to jail for armed robbery in 1928. While in prison he began writing and publishing stories, and did so until paroled in 1936. He kept writing his entire life, even while living as an expat in France and Spain. He died in 1984 from Parkinson’s Disease.
As I said, I’ve only read two of his books, but I hope to read as many more as I can find. Those I’ve already been introduced to were both fantastic, entertaining reads, with outlandish plots that tie up nicely when all is said and done. If you haven’t experienced Chester Himes, and enjoy hardboiled crime and detective fiction, then you won’t find much better than this.
Thanks to Patti Abbott once again for organizing the weekly Forgotten Books Friday madness. Make sure and check her site for a roundup of all the other books being blown free of dust and reminded to the world!