Chester Himes Mystery & Detective Fiction Analysis

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2065

Chester Himes began his Harlem Domestic series with the publication of For Love of Imabelle (1957), following a suggestion by his French publisher, Marcel Duhamel, to contribute to the popular Série noire . Written in less than two weeks, while he was “living in a little crummy hotel in Paris”...

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Chester Himes began his Harlem Domestic series with the publication of For Love of Imabelle (1957), following a suggestion by his French publisher, Marcel Duhamel, to contribute to the popular Série noire. Written in less than two weeks, while he was “living in a little crummy hotel in Paris” under very strained emotional and economic circumstances, the novel, when translated and published in Paris in 1958, was awarded a French literary prize, the Grand Prix de Littérature Policière. Rescued from economic dependency and the obscurity of exile, Himes wrote the next four volumes in the series—Il pluet des coups durs (1958; The Real Cool Killers, 1959), Couché dans le pain (1959; The Crazy Kill, 1959), Tout pour plaire (1959; The Big Gold Dream, 1960), Imbroglio negro (1960; All Shot Up, 1960)—all within the next two years. Each successive volume represents a significant expansion and development of essential aspects of Himes’s evolving artistic and ideological vision.

Inspired by two detectives Himes met in Los Angeles in the 1940’s, Grave Digger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson are serious and, as their nicknames imply, deadly enforcers of social order and justice. Maintaining balance through a carefully organized network of spies disguised as junkies, drunks, and even nuns soliciting alms for the poor at the most unusual times and places, Grave Digger and Coffin Ed are aggressive, fearless, and genuinely concerned with the community’s welfare and improvement. They wage a relentless, unorthodox, and often-personal battle against Harlem’s criminal elements. Fiercely loyal to each other, they are forced to be “tough” and mutually protective: They operate in an arena where most people consider police officers public enemies. Honest, dedicated to their profession, and motivated largely by a moral conscience—tinged with a certain amount of cynicism—they possess a code of ethics comparable (although not identical) to those of the Hammett/Chandler heroes.

Only in the first book of the series is there any implication of venality or dishonesty: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.

Except for this brief reference—explained perhaps by the fact that Himes had not fully developed their characters, a possibility suggested by their absence in almost the first half of the novel—all the subsequent narratives are explicit in emphasizing their honesty and integrity as detectives.

Grave Digger and Coffin Ed are often brutal in their search for the guilty; this aspect of their characters, however, is directly related to the principal issues of the series and to Himes’s vision of the essence of American life: violence. In a discussion of his perception of the detective genre with the novelist John A. Williams, Himes shed some light on the reasons for the pervasive presence of often-hideous forms of physical violence in his works:It’s just plain and simple violence in narrative form, you know. ’Cause no one, no one, writes about violence the way that Americans do. As a matter of fact, for the simple reason that no one understands violence or experiences violence like the American civilians do. . . . American violence is public life, it’s a public way of life, it became a form, a detective story form.

Indeed, more than one critic has attacked Himes’s novels on the basis of gratuitous physical violence. When practiced by Grave Digger and Coffin Ed, however, brutal outbursts are, more often than not, justifiable: Caught between the dangers inherent in their quest for a better community and the long arm of the white institution that supposedly protects them, Grave Digger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson are forced to be coldly effective through the only means at their disposal. Certainly their role as black representatives of the white power structure defines the very tenuous nature of their relationship to the Harlem community and accounts for most of the novels’ uncertainties and much of their suspense.

On another level, however, the excessive physical violence in Himes’s novels is related to another aspect of the author’s artistic and ideological perspectives—namely, the concern for place, real and imaginary. Harlem represents the center and circumference of the African American experience: It is the symbolic microcosm and the historical matrix of Himes’s America. Isolated, besieged by the outside world and turning inward on itself, Harlem is, on one hand, a symbol of disorder, chaos, confusion, and self-perpetuating pain and, on the other, an emblem of cultural and historical achievement. The duality and contradiction of its identity is the source of the tension that animates Himes’s plots and propels them toward their often-incredible resolutions. At the core of Harlem’s reality, moreover, is violence—physical and psychological.

In a speech delivered in 1948 and subsequently published as “The Dilemma of the Negro Novelist in the U.S.” in Beyond the Angry Black (1966), a compilation edited by John A. Williams, Himes noted: “The question the Negro writer must answer is: How does the fear he feels as a Negro in white American society affect his, the Negro personality?” Not until this question is addressed by the writer, Himes went on to say, can there be the slightest understanding of any aspect of black life in the United States: crime, marital relations, spiritual or economic aspirations—all will be beyond understanding until the dynamics of this fear have been exposed behind the walls of the ghetto, “until others have experienced with us to the same extent the impact of fear upon our personalities.” It is this conception of fear and its psychological corollary, rage, that sustains Himes’s detective stories and links them ideologically to his earlier, nonmystery fiction. (It is significant that the first novel in the series, For Love of Imabelle, was published in the United States as A Rage in Harlem.)

The Crazy Kill

The connection between the image of Harlem and the violence that derives from fear is particularly apparent in The Crazy Kill. The Harlem of this novel is a place, in the words of Coffin Ed, “where anything can happen,” and from the narrative’s bizarre opening incident to the very last, that sense of the incredibly plausible pervades. When the theft of a bag of money from a grocery store attracts the attention of Reverend Short, Mamie Pullen’s minister and a participant at the wake held across the street for Mamie’s husband, the notorious gambler Big Joe Pullen, the storefront preacher leans too far out of a bedroom window under the influence of his favorite concoction, opium and brandy, and falls out. He lands, miraculously, in a basket of bread outside the bakery beneath. He picks himself up and returns to the wake, where he experiences one of his habitual “visions.” When Mamie later accompanies Reverend Short to the window as he explains the circumstances of his fall, she looks down and sees the body of Valentine Haines, a young hood who has been living with Sister Dulcy and her husband Johnny “Fishtail” Perry, Big Joe’s godson. The earlier vision has become reality: a dead man with a hunting knife in his heart.

Grave Digger and Coffin Ed are summoned to discover who murdered Val and, with Detective Sergeant Brody, an Irishman, begin questioning all possible suspects. Perhaps it was Johnny, whose temper is as infamous as his gambling prowess. Perhaps it was Charlie Chink, whose girlfriend, Doll Baby, appeared to be the recent target of Val’s affections. Still, why the exotic hunting knife? Why the basket of bread? What conspiracy of silence connects Reverend Short, Johnny’s girl Sister Dulcy, and Mamie Pullen, forcing Johnny to travel to Chicago before returning to Harlem and murdering Charlie Chink?

After the initial several hours of questioning, Sergeant Brody, despite his years of experience, is too dumbfounded to explain the web of illogical complications in this case. Grave Digger tells him, in a statement that recurs throughout the novel and the entire series, epitomizing Himes’s vision of the city: “This is Harlem. . . . ain’t no other place like it in the world. You’ve got to start from scratch here, because these folks in Harlem do things for reasons nobody else in the world would think of.”

The plot unravels through a series of mysterious events, including scenes of rage and violence that are the physical consequences of emotional brutalization. Johnny wakes up to find Charlie Chink wandering around nude in his apartment and shoots him six times, stomps his bloody body until Chink’s teeth are “stuck in his calloused heel,” and then leans over and clubs Chink’s head “into a bloody pulp with his pistol butt.” These explosions, Himes’s work suggests, derive from the most sublimated forms of frustration and hatred; the same forces can be seen in the degree of murderous intent that accompanies Coffin Ed’s frequent loss of equilibrium. The repeated examples of “murderous rage” and the number of characters in the series whose faces are cut or whose bodies are maimed are related to this vision of Harlem as a dehumanizing prisonlike world. Even the apparently comic purposes of character description tend to underscore this perspective (Reverend Short, for example, is introduced as having a “mouth shaped like that of a catfish” and eyes that “protrude behind his gold-rimmed spectacles like a bug’s under a microscope”).

Himes’s evocation of a sense of place, however, is not limited to bizarre scenes of physical violence and rage. Beyond the scores of defiant men who are reminders of the repressed nature of manhood in the inner cities, the author gives abundant images of Harlem’s social life (rent parties, fish fries, and wakes), its cultural past (Duke Ellington, Billy Eckstein, the Apollo Theatre), its economic and political hierarchies (civil servants, politicians, underworld celebrities), and its peculiar lifestyles and institutions (street gangs, professional gamblers, numbers runners, the homosexual subculture, the heroin trade, evangelist’s churches, and soapbox orators). All of this is done with the aplomb of a tour guide whose knowledge of the terrain is complete and whose understanding of the cultural codes of behavior permits explanation to the uninitiated.

A bittersweet, tragicomic tone alternating with an almost Rabelaisian exuberance characterizes Himes’s descriptions of the sights, rhythms, and sounds of life in Harlem. Even the diverse enticements and rich peculiarities of African American cooking are a part of Harlem’s atmosphere, and the smells and tastes are frequently explored as Himes moves his two detectives through the many greasy spoons that line their beat (at one point in The Crazy Kill the author duplicates an entire restaurant menu, from entrees to beverages, from “alligator tail and rice” to “sassafrasroot tea”).

Humor (if not parody) is reflected in the many unusual names of Himes’s characters: Sassafras, Susie Q., Charlie Chink Dawson, H. Exodus Clay, Pigmeat, and Fishtail Perry; it is also reflected in the many instances of gullibility motivated by greed that account for the numerous scams, stings, and swindles that occur.

Himes accomplishes all of this with a remarkable economy of dialogue and language, an astute manipulation of temporal sequence, and a pattern of plots distinguished by a marvelous blend of fantasy and realism: a sense of the magically real that lurks beneath the surface of the commonplace. “Is he crazy or just acting?” asks Sergeant Brody about Reverend Short’s vision. “Maybe both,” Grave Digger answers.

Later Series Novels

The last three novels in the series—Ne nous énervons pas! (1961; The Heat’s On, 1966; also known as Come Back Charleston Blue, 1974), Retour en Afrique (1964; Cotton Comes to Harlem, 1965), Blind Man with a Pistol (1969; also known as Hot Day, Hot Night, 1970)—continue the character types, stylistic devices, and thematic concerns of the earlier novels. Each one represents a deepening of Himes’s artistic control over his material; each one further enhanced his reputation in the genre and increased his notoriety and popularity among the American public. The first two of these were adapted for the screen—Cotton Comes to Harlem (1969) and Come Back Charleston Blue (1972)—and the third, reissued in the United States as Hot Day, Hot Night (1970), was received as the “apotheosis” of Himes’s detective novels. Its author was described (on the jacket cover) as “the best black American novelist writing today.”

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