Chester Himes is usually known, if he is known at all, as the author of a series of Harlem-based crime novels featuring Grave Digger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson, African American cops who have one foot on each side of the imaginary “thin blue line” that is supposed to separate order from anarchy and, as an ineradicably racist society sees it, justice from jungle. In his thoroughly researched and deeply felt biographical and critical study—one senses throughout that the author and his subject are kindred spirits—James Sallis establishes the substantial artistic and cultural value of these novels, which not only earn Himes a place in the company of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and James M. Cain as a master of the hard- boiled style and existential fable but add a literal and vital African American blackness to a noir tradition that has been for the most part short-sightedly color-blind.
This renewed appreciation of his late works is set in the context of a rediscovery of earlier works that confirm Himes’s lifelong serious literary claims and ambitions. Sallis meticulously traces Himes’s artistic versatility and development—his characteristic blend of violence and comedy, for example, and his move from realism to an exaggerated stylization necessary to capture his vision of an irrational and unjust world—even as he outlines a basic unity in Himes’s work, seen in a recurrent focus on explosive violence, alienation, self-hatred, and...
(The entire section is 409 words.)